'The Vicar of Weyfield Problem'

by Phineas Redux

—OOO—

Summary:— John Drage is a private investigator in an East Coast American city, in the 1930's. He and Claire Baxter, his fellow investigator, stumble over a murder in a church.

Disclaimer:— This story is copyright ©2021 to Phineas Redux. All characters in this story are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Caution:— There is some light swearing in this story.

—O—

Weyfield was a small district, enclave almost, on the western outskirts of Delacote City; small, but still able to boast its own local church, Weyfield Church, a Church of England disciple still holding fast to its ancestral antecedents. Built in 1889 in the then ridiculously popular Gothic Revival style it was today of course, in September 1935, far too large for any likely congregation it could possibly assemble from the local area; its interior being even less encouraging to the strolling worshipper because its central heating had not worked properly since the turn of the century and its long line of windows on each side of the aisle were decorated with leaded coloured glass windows reflecting that other popular religious movement of the 1880s, Muscular Christianity! This latter contributing to rows of manly figures in the windows apparently reflecting handsome, sportsman-like young men who, if their strong jaws raised purposely in the air and expressions of class superiority were anything to go by, were not the type to show as agreeable companions on a pub spree on Saturday night. The fact that nobody cared, at least in contemporary outside local society, about its upkeep in the slightest, whatever those officials inhabiting the building on a working basis might wish, also contributing to the fact it was now structurally speaking in a state of slightly decrepit, if still vaguely elegant, shabbiness.

John Drage, of the eponymous Drage Investigators Inc., had drawn his heavy 4-door Dodge Touring Sedan up to the edge of the sidewalk, parking parallel as the street was too narrow to allow of the usual slanted system. Now, standing on said sidewalk staring at the large red sandstone building at least one of the investigatory duo had doubts about it.

"Y'sure this's the place, John?" Claire Baxter, equal partner in the Investigators business, gazing up at the vast religious mansion with little apparent love.

"Yeah, this is it." John nodding as they headed for the large medieval looking wooden entrance door. "Hope t'Hel—er, I mean, hope someone answers when I knock—otherwise taking that door down'll need a tank with a mighty powerful cannon."

"Ha!"

The door however, on Claire's stepping ahead of her boss to try this little act, proved to be unlocked she thrusting her weight against it to push it open.

"There ya go, Boss—we're in!"

The interior showed a large square room well-lit by one of the stained glass windows. Immediately opposite the door was a low table on which a hefty empty metal bowl rested; to each side high double doors, presently closed, led one supposed further into the depths of the religious domain.

"You'd think they'd've put some flowers or something in the bowl." John contemplating this ornament with perhaps more interest than it deserved.

"Collection."

"What?" John turning to his companion with frowning brow. "What? What collection?"

"The congregation." Claire setting her boss right with the way of the world. "Y'know, the customers who park themselves on the pews? They cast their worldly goods into the bowl on arrival, by custom. Or, at least, what few coins they might feel able t'spare on the occasion."

"Oh-ah, of course."

"But there's always the odd foreign coin being passed along, or just a coat button in lieu of the real thing, y'know." Claire continuing with her worldly-wise take on the matter.

"This door probably leads into the church, I expect." John changing the subject with that ease and smoothness for which he was hardly ever renowned. "Follow your leader, Claire."

"Sure, Boss, anywhere."

The church proper, where the congregation sat on long benches placed in two sections divided by a wide central passage, was a revelation to the two investigators on their entering.

"Whoof!" Claire first to wrestle with the elephant in the room. "Musty as all get-out! Clock that sweet aromatic smell—they have a deep-seated dry rot problem for sure."

"All look like a Varsity football team."

It was Claire's turn to gaze at her leader with a wrinkled brow.

"What?"

"The windows."

Claire, so encouraged, looked both ways at the lines of said embrasures.

"What about 'em?"

"The pictures, don't know what they're called—the figures." John clarifying as best he was able. "They all look like young American Varsity drop-outs, all with silver spoons in their mouths and more likely than not to knock you down in the street if you came up t'them askin' for charity!"

"That's harsh, John."

"But fair." John growling low in his throat. "I got memories, baby—er, Claire, that is."

"So," Claire swiftly changing the subject on her own account. "Where's this Monsignor Frederick Hersham, then? Thought he'd a'been dancin' a jig back in that entrance hall waiting on our arrival, like the return of the Prodigal son an' daughter?"

John, so harangued, shook his head sadly.

"Very Biblical, I'm sure." He preparing to give a loud hail, by opening his mouth in preparation.

"Hey! This's a church, don't shout! It ain't polite."

"Oh-ah, yeah, sure!" John brought up short with a tight rope just prior to this awful faux pas. "Well, suppose we better go an' look for the lost prelate, or something."

"This's a Church of England establishment, John."

"Yeah, so?"

"They don't have prelates, or Monsignors even now I come to think about it, that's the opposition—I mean, the Roman Catholics." Claire giving her boss an obviously much-needed rundown on the details of the religious hierarchy of the present establishment.

"What do they have, then?"

Caught short Claire huffed and puffed a few times then did what she did best so charmingly and ruthlessly—bluff her way forward with a clear eye and no conscience at all.

"Whatever, it ain't the former. Wait—Vicar's, yeah, they have Vicars, that's it."

"Vicar?" John frowning again over this archaic nomenclature. "What's a vicar? Is it dangerous? Does it bite?"

"Fool, get a grip." Claire taking charge when obviously most needed. "Look, the altar at the far end's unoccupied—I mean, obviously there ain't no-one there, or in this middle aisle. I'll take the aisle to my right, you take the left over there, see if we can make progress that way. If ya find a door to somewhere else give a shou—no, don't do that, just wave a hand or something. Got that, boss?"

"Yeah, not much of a plan but, beggars an' all that!"

The footsteps of the investigating duo echoed like the footfalls of Giants in the high wide hall as they crossed to either side in continuance of the search for further realms hidden in the depths of the structure. The fact there were no rows of pillars obstructing the view, the chamber being open from side to side, the over-arching beams of the roof on view high overhead, contributing to this acoustic effect.

"Y'notice how echoes always make a place seem much colder?" Claire, now some thirty-five feet distant from her companion, raising her voice slightly to communicate this vital insight into Nature across the intervening void.

"There's a door over here." John's upper half, all that was visible over the massed benches, turning to wave a hand in a curiously ambiguous manner. "Wan'na come across?"

A minute later both stood contemplating the door in question, each in two minds.

"Well, it's a door, sure."

"Meb'be lead to the private den of the inmates. Shall I knock?"

Claire regarded her companion with a querying eye.

"John ya got somethin' against religion in the whole, or just something personal against some off-shoot of sich regarding yourself? You seem mighty peeved about bein' here at all, jus' sayin'."

John, so addressed, shuffled uncomfortably.

"Well, I got memories of my youth. I was an altar boy best part of a year, y'know." He looking exceptionally uneasy at such memories. "Not a good time—aah, I'll knock, then. See if anyone's home."

His attack on the body of the door however, sustained and professional as it was, resulted in exactly nothing—no movement from inside, nor from anywhere else in the church's main hall.

"Looks like nobody's home." Claire shrugging in answer to this failed attempt at communication. "Try the knob, see if it's open."

A minute later they stood within a small ante-chamber which appeared to be some sort of dressing-room judging by the wardrobes on either side and the various pieces of clothing set-out on a wide table in the centre; but the investigators weren't looking at these but at the body of a man lying on the floor just under the window at the far end of the room—a body surrounded by a wide pool of dark blood that boded no good for the victim's health.

Claire was first to reach the body, standing to one side to avoid the stain on the stone floor while bending to regard the features of the man lying there.

"He's kaput!" She making no bones about the matter. "Looks like his throat's been slit—dead as mutton."

"Blood's coagulated—must'a happened some time since, meb'be hours."

"Yeah, well, it's Inspector Fletcher's basket of fruit now. If that phone on the table's operating you can have the honour, John."

"Thanks!"

—O—

The same church, a different room, various police officers, in uniform and out, and another just arrived representative of the church hierarchy; all talking together, though mostly at sixes and sevens.

"What's his name?" This from Inspector Jacob Fletcher, in charge of the 5th Precinct and not amused at another murder within his domaine.

"The Most Reverend—"

"I ain't interested in titles—what's his name's all that's wanted, and address, of course." Fletcher taking no prisoners.

"Ooh!" The churchman gasping for breath, clearly never having been spoken to so abruptly in recent memory. "Well, Frederick Montague Edwardes Timothy Hersham. His address is Seven-Oh-Four Trenchal Avenue, The Heights, this city."

"Thanks," Fletcher glancing at his companion in plain clothes standing by his side taking notes. "Sergeant Keisler's got that. Now, who're you? Where've you been while this murder's been taking place?"

The man, in ordinary street clothes himself, though of a high quality tweed accompanied by an expensive hat, looked flustered at this series of questions.

"Myself? Well, I left the diocese yesterday afterno—"

"Diocese? What's that? What has it to do with this church?" Fletcher speaking in his best staccato interrogatory tone.

"It is this church." The man becoming a little agitated. "If you will allow me? I am David Browne, Archdeacon of the Church, under the Reverend Hersham. The Dean, Mister Jonathan Fallworthy, is at present in Portsmouth attending an ecclesiastical conference. I haven't seen or spoken with Reverend Hersham since I left yesterday."

"Hmmph!" This ejaculation hardly sounding satisfied to all those in the small room located some distance from the scene of the tragedy. "It'll do, though, till Sergeant Keisler here carries out some further in-depth investigating. Right, Doctor been yet? Golightly! Go an' see if the Doc's seen to the deceased yet."

One of the uniformed officers nodded, a grunt his only audible response to this order, but he did move across the room to exit into the body of the church again.

"Any signs of anyone else having been here when you two arrived?" Fletcher now turning to John and Claire.

"Nah, everything as silent as the gra—er, no, no-one, just Claire and I."

"Hmmph!" Fletcher hardly assured by this response either. "Gon'na be one of those, seemingly."

"What can we do to help, Inspector?" Claire making first play with an official offer.

"Nothing, is what." Fletcher taking no nonsense. "It's an official murder enquiry so, as private investigators your deal is to stay out'ta the deal; until possibly called for, anyway. Right?"

"Yeah-yeah!" John nor Claire no way satisfied, but tied by the legal requisites in such cases. "Well, see ya around, Inspector."

"Bye, Inspector." Claire doing the polite as she and her Boss headed for the door themselves.

Fletcher, however, was already otherwise occupied.

"So,—what did ya call yourself, again?"

"Me?" The church representative still at sea amongst this highly disturbing turn of events. "Archdeacon David Browne."

"Right! So, what did the late Rev. usually do of an evening when alone here at the church, Mister Browne?"

—O—

The duo of investigators sat in their private office in the Clairmont Building, Westchester Street, mulling over their next move; but both had a pretty good idea what that might well be.

"Give him another ten minutes." John putting his cards on the table as he sipped from a mug of coffee just after midday.

"He's a busy man, as Inspectors' go," Claire choosing her own path. "probably not for another half hour; hell, may even send Keisler hotfoot in person."

"If so, don't feed the animals, or kick their butt's, Claire, if ya don't mind. I not wishing t'spend the rest of the day in the tank."

"Oh, very funny." Claire quite easily resisting the urge to laugh at this take on both their attitudes towards the usually loud and overbearing, but always obnoxious, police Sergeant Keisler.

In fact the phone rang just under quarter of an hour later, Helen their trusty secretary out in the public office transferring the call to their internal co-phones.

"Hi'ya Inspector, what's the day been like for you, then?" John starting-off in his usual high energy style.

"Knock it off! What were ya both doin', back at the church earlier this mornin'?" Inspector Fletcher in no mood for games. "Take it ya had a bona fide reason fer bein' there t'discover the body?"

"Thought same'd show up in lights sometime around now on your schedule, Inspector." John holding fast to his position. "Guilty until foun—er, I mean, innocent until found guilty, y'know, laddie—"

"Rraargh, b-llsh-t!" Fletcher obviously under pressure during the course of a harder than usual day. "Why were ya there—an' it better be good, with tassels on an' champagne t'go!"

"Hi'ya, Jacob!" Claire, on her part, ready for the fray as always, her ancestral warrior soul coming to the fore with fangs revealed. "Cool your wheels, I can see the steam from here. The late deceased, Rev Hersham, phoned us yesterday afternoon asking for a quick meeting this morning; didn't go into specifics, but said it was urgent and we'd probably have t'do some hardline investigating when he'd told us what was what. So we duly proceeded as per this mornin' only t'find our sponsor had left for another engagement in a wholly different sphere of influence. That OK?"

"Hrrph, about as OK as a week-old tuna sandwich, without mayonnaise." Fletcher seeming intent on not being pleased at anything today. "Won't do at all. Look, I'll send Keisler round, he can take down your official statement fer real. Meb'be so keepin' ya both out'ta the office upstairs an' the Third Degree fer the rest o'the day, capiche?"

"Jacob?" John not brow-beaten in the least. "Give over, will ya? Hersham had a case for us, didn't say what, just to get over t'his place of business soon's we could this mornin'. We duly carried out his wishes only t'find him unresponsive to all further requests to get up an' dance the Carioca, is all. How's that suit ya?"

A confused mix of sounds carrying over the wires showed the intrepid Inspector had tried growling unhappily, answering John's question with some well-picked expletives, and drawing-in a deep breath for further argument—this all ending as his two listeners well-knew it would; the unlit cigar he habitually chewed on throughout the day breaking-up between his grating teeth and nearly choking him as a result.

"You OK, Jacob?" Claire worried this was going to be the last time she had the chance to harangue her old friend. "You sound kind'a pre-occupied!"

"Wrraarph—Urrph—Aacchh!" Yeah, OK now, g-d'd-m cigars, be the death o'me yet." Fletcher recovering heroically. "Right, OK, if that's all ya got fer me suppose it'll have'ta do. Bye."

"That went better than expected." Claire sighing in relief as she replaced her receiver. "Thought at least he'd order us t'hit the Precinct again t'explain ourselves."

"Too much else on his plate." John nodding knowingly. "Murder cases, 'specially with high-profile victims, always a mess o'potage all mixed up an' smellin' t'High Heaven."

"Even more so in this case than usual, John?"

"Har, never a truer word, Claire, that's so."

—O—

Three-thirty-five in the afternoon and Claire had just finished a violet-iced cookie along with her afternoon cup of coffee and was thereby refreshed and ready for anything the rest of the day could throw her way, John being presently engaged out in the public office with a messenger bringing gifts from afar re another ongoing case. Then her phone rang.

"Hallo, can I help?"

"Yes, thank you; if you would kindly put me through to your employer, please. I have already spoken to another secretary already."

Claire, well-used to this sort of reception, sighed silently and faced the mistake for the umpteenth time.

"I'm Claire Baxter, equal partner in this Investigating Company, so what can I do for you? Name please?"

"Eh? Oh! Ah!" The speaker sounding both confused and slightly embarrassed. "Well, yes,—ahem! The thing is—er, what did you ask, again?"

"Your name?" Claire shaking her head, though she had experienced this low level of communication between client and investigator on many earlier occasions.

"Ah, I'm Dean Jonathan Fallworthy, I—"

"Hold on, lem'me get it down on paper." Claire writing at the speed of light. "OK, name, Dean Jonathan Fallworthy—OK, Dean, if I may call you that, wha—"

"—er, no, I mean, I think you may be under a misapprehension, Miss." The speaker sounding, even over the phone-line, as if he too were in the fog. "I am the Dean—Dean of Weyfield Church; my name is Jonathan Fallworthy."

Claire was hardly any the wiser.

"A little foggy here, Mister. If your name's Jonathan, where's the Dean bit come in? Either you're called Dean or you're not, surely?"

"No—No!" Jonathan becoming exasperated at this meaningless mix-up. "As official accountant of the Church my title is Dean—my Christian name is Jonathan—Jonathan Fallworthy—Dean is the office in the Church that I hold. Am I get—er, that is, do you follow me now, Miss?"

Revelation having finally hit Claire sighed yet again, twiddling her pen meanwhile.

"You sure don't make it easy on yourself, Mister, do you? Ever thought about changing your title to something more—oh, innocuous? Would help no end, I'm sure you'd agree?"

The speaker, Jonathan, at the other end of the line now gave up the defence of his ecclesiastical position entirely, moving forward as best he could.

"Shall we get along to why I have called you, Miss—er, whatever it was you said your name was?"

Her warrior soul still being in the superior mode Claire took this sarky remark as one would have expected.

"Jonathan, don't be mean, now; that ain't nice, 'specially from one in your line of business! How's about you call me by the name I gave you earlier—I'm sure you recall? And as to your business? Well, get on with it, thanks muchly—my time being, as you will no doubt fully understand, abundantly engaged with other more important matters of moment and necessity."

A silence down the line showed the client deep in thought—probably, Claire herself strongly imagined, about whether this might be a golden opportunity to simply call it a bust and hang-up. But politeness and necessity on Jonathan's part won the day.

"It's in relation to the unfortunate demise of my associate and friend, the Reverend Frederick Hersham, Miss Baxter; the Inspector in charge has made it plain he thinks the culprit was some unknown nobody breaking-in to steal the coin from the collection dish. An explanation that defies all logic, but there you are. I've called in order to engage your Company to investigate on the Church's behalf—to discover the real culprit, and the real reason for my beloved friend's—ah, sad translation to a Better World!"

This explanation and request having hit home on all fronts Claire nodded unseen, taking the professional view John was always harassing her to present to clients far more frequently than she wished to.

"OK, got that; well, better make an appointment; will ten o'clock here, tomorrow morning suit?"

Another silence made hay along the wires before she received an answer.

"Well, it would be better, more acceptable, if you could make it here, at Weyfield Church? I having to keep ahead of all sorts of incoming business regarding Church affairs, you understand. Even more so now than usual in regard to, ah, recent events."

Claire mused for two seconds then made an executive decision.

"OK, your place, ten tomorrow morning, see you there, bye?"

"Goodbye, Miss Baxter."

—O—

The church, on their arrival next morning at five to ten am, seemed exactly the same as their previous visit—no police vehicles, no yellow tape cordoning-off areas, no messages on the massive door forbidding one and all from entering; just another anonymous religious building among many. John nor Claire even needing to knock as the Dean was awaiting their presence on the step of the open entrance door, even if with a coldly magesterial air.

"Waiting for us," Claire muttering this almost below her breath as they exited John's Dodge. "though hardly offering welcoming gifts of myrrh or frankincense from Samarkand, whatever they each may be, I bet."

"Be nice," John already aware his companion might well be anything but, if pushed. "restrain the wild beast within, if at all possible."

"Idiot!"

"Hallo, Mister Fallworthy!" John, unknowingly setting-of on entirely the wrong ecclesiastical foot.

"Dean, if you please, Mister Drage." Jonathan standing on ceremony without turning a hair, but giving his visitors of his best stand-off neutral expression whilst so engaged.

Claire, always perky when faced with this level of back-sliding politeness-wise, crashed the scene without further ado.

"Whatever, Mister Fallworthy; either we can stand here chatting about outmoded titles, or we can get down to business—or we, Mister Drage and I, can just turn on our heels and wipe the dust of your fancy pied-à-terre from our shoes for all eternity to come. Which'd you prefer?"

"My dear woman!" Jonathan astounded down to his cotton socks. "This is a Religious House, if you had not realised so before. I hardly think your attitude in any way conducive to civil intercourse!"

If Jonathan had been engaged in berating a hungry wolf to its face Claire could not have reacted any less angrily.

"Fallworthy! Last time I met a religious prelate, one-on-one, he spanked me for some innocent misdemeanor of childhood; my Mother present the while—I haven't allowed the righteousness of anyone dealing in religious matters ever since—and I haven't seen my Mother these fifteen years past. That answer your attitude?"

Before he could answer John came in with his take on the matter.

"For myself, Mister Fallworthy, I have a history with vicars, prelates, Fathers, or any other sort'a officer of the Church; dating from way-back. Fact, I'm astonished at myself for allowing this dam' case t'get so far along the line as it already has. So, do we get down t'business, or call it quits—I not mindin' either way, but much preferin' the latter."

Defeated on all fronts Fallworthy stepped to one side, indicating with an arm his visitors had the run of the building.

Once inside he ushered them into the body of the church acting as guide ahead of the duo, taking them along the left aisle where a series of doors apparently gave entrance to various rooms contained in an exterior wing. He ostentatiously passing the room where Hersham's career had come to so untimely an end with a cursory wave of his arm.

"I locked the Vestry after the police announced they were finished with their investigations therein." Fallworthy hardly deigning to glance at the door as he passed it. "Though I shall have to arrange for the cleaners to go over it fairly extensively before the next services on Sunday. The Sacristy, however, is available—this way."

Claire, realising perfectly well 'this way' simply meant further along the aisle, shook her head in disdain though following as requested. Fallworthy came to a halt outside another plain door, waiting for his guests to catch up, he having strode ahead with all the physical ambulatory power that showed he was indeed a Muscular Christian of the most fervent kind.

This room turned out as ordinary and uninteresting as the brief glimpse John and Claire had experienced of the earlier murder scene; Fallworthy indicating that two bare upright wooden chairs by a square table were to be their resting-places for the duration—he taking a third such chair under the single window which lighted the room; this one bearing no coloured glass.

"So, what's the news from the Front?" John getting right down to it, exuding professionalism and the willingness to get the job done that always so captivated his more impressionable clients.

"What?" Fallworthy obviously not up to speed with modern slang.

"You wish us to investigate Mr-, I mean Reverend, Hersham's demise but in what way? Are you aware, by the way, we as investigators' charge set terms per hour and day?"

Fallworthy cast this aside with a supercilious sweep of his hand.

"The Church—I mean, the Diocesan Synod—will cover the appropriate expences, thank you."

John raised an eyebrow at this cursory ignoring of what could easily expand to rather high levels of expenditure on the client's side, but carried on gaily notwithstanding.

"So, what's the problem? You understand we cannot investigate or thrust our oars into an ongoing police murder inquiry; the same being illegal every which way."

Fallworthy nodded, with little obvious concern over this minor detail.

"An arcane policy, but there we are, yes." He taking the situation calmly as it unfolded, like a Stoic having seen the roof of his house blow off in a gale. "Although I have an idea the Ministering Angels above would look, he-he, on the matter differently, don't you agree? But you can, I expect, investigate the supernumerary antecedents and borders of the incident in question?"

Claire, having fallen into a near cataleptic state as Fallworthy intoned his desire for action in such long-winded a manner, now came back to life and the present with vigor; she laying her notebook flat before her on the table, resting her right hand on its smooth surface whilst idly twiddling her fingers.

"If you mean look into the reasons why, rather than the physical leftovers of the case, yeah, there's space for us to move there, sure. What exactly did you have in mind? Someone flickering in the corner of your eye you think's been acting some suspicious as leading villain, or what?"

Fallworthy was not impressed by this angle on the affair.

"Madam, this is not a Jacobean Revenge play! Perhaps a modicum of professionalism would be noteworthy in the circumstances?"

Having taken quite enough of this counter accusational argument John steered the discussion in a more specific direction.

"If there is someone you wish us to investigate; someone you think has been acting suspiciously or has seemed in some way involved with Reverend Hersham in the recent past, then tell us—we'll see what we can come up with concerning them: meb'be take the matter in a direction that'll help clear things up!"

So brought to the point Fallworthy hesitated, fiddling with a pen he had produced from a pocket of his jacket.

"Well, Reverend Hersham was murdered by someone, that's clear." He inclining his head in a deprecatory manner. "Only rational; but the question is. he-he—who?"

"What about this police theory, of some thug from the street barging in after loose change?" Claire reverting to the theory she had heard earlier.

"Utter tosh!" Fallworthy almost shouting as he spoke. "Sorry, it's just so idiotic; can't believe even now the authorities have given the stupid idea any recognition at all! No, someone Reverend Hersham knew did the deed, so much is clear as daylight. The only question, as you so pertinently ask, is who? Which I also ask although I of course—er, that is—well, as to that—"

in the interim, though, another aspect of the criminal's likely identity had made itself known to John; who had himself taken to indolently twirling his fingers as he also rested his hand on the table.

"Church of England people—I mean, Reverends, Vicars, and so forth, they don't do Confessions, do they?"

"No, of course not—a wholly Catholic usage. Why do you ask?"

"Only," John rubbing his chin in thought. "if it had been a confessional member of the congregation, they might have told Reverend Hersham something privately that they later regretted, and so taken the usual steps to counteract?"

Fallworthy sat mute for a while, absorbing this angle on the tragedy.

"Hmm, could still be a member of the congregation, however; confession not really being a pressing need. Yes-Yes! You're right, of course! Most Vicars, and others of our Church, often act as holders of personal secrets in the way of offering our flock moral advice on, er, often highly personal matters. Wholly with the persons' agreement, of course. Why didn't I think of that at the ti—er, yes!"

"But this hypothetical member of your flock, could decide later to renege on the discussion; take umbrage, you might say, and plot bloody revenge thereafter," Claire growing more in tune with her theory as she went. "just like, in fact, a Jacobean Revenge play?"

Fallworthy cast a glance filled with ill-concealed disgust at Claire who, diplomatically, was now engaged in looking down at her notebook.

"An angle worth following up, sure." John coming in here to break the ice. "So, anyone in mind?"

Put on the spot Fallworthy, now uncomfortably sweating and shifting on his chair, broke under the strain.

"Well, as you ask so imperiously,—yes-yes, imperiously—like the Old Roman Emperors! Yes-Yes! But, to your query," He looking like someone attempting to eat a raw onion and instantly regretting the action. "there is a certain person, a business acquaintance of the late Reverend Hersham, whom I have never liked; never become a brother with, in the Christian sense of the term, that is. Yes, he might well do for—ahem, please continue!"

John and Claire both perked-up at this.

"Who?" Claire feeling conciseness to be required without restraint at this delicate point in their discussion.

"Well, it's a Mister Canning, Joseph Canning. He lives in Todmorton. He has conducted some business with Reverend Hersham in the recent past; business of some moment, that is."

"Church business?" John taking one thing at a time.

"No, private."

"A Minister conducting private business?" Claire a little befuddled. "What kind of business? To do with the Church in any way, or simply private as in to do with his personal affairs entirely?"

"The latter."

John could see the beginnings of a possible level of viable investigatory strata emerging concerning this person, and fell to it with a will.

"We'll need their name; man or woman? Address, and that of the business firm they work for. Also, exactly what kind of business this is; what it covers, what Hersham had to gain and, more importantly, what the suspect might have to gain? OK?"

Fallworthy looked as if regretting ever having decided to take the investigation down this path, but obviously it was far too late for him to backtrack now.

"Joseph Canning, 219 Devonside Way, Todmorton, this city; works as Financial Director at Gruman, Keighley, Jones, and Köhler, Insurance Agents, 451 Broughton Street, Downtown, this city. As to the business conducted with the Reverend Hersham? Well, it had to do with taking out a double insurance policy on his Life."

Claire was stupefied by this unexpected revelation.

"What? A Double Indemnity? You're joking?"

Fallworthy, caught off-guard, turned to regard Claire in astonishment.

"Why? Wholly appropriate, I should have thought? At least it seemed so when Hersham explained the nature of the undertaking to me some weeks ago. Although the fine detail, of course—a wholly different, ha-ha, kettle of fish!"

John here felt the need for some much needed clarification.

"This policy? Covered his own life, I take it? Or is he married? His wife's policy, perhaps?"

"No-no, he is single—that is, haer, harumph, was single." Fallworthy becoming more and more embarrassed and unsettled by the minute. "He felt, to put it bluntly, that an extra policy, covering a certain aspect of his life, would be entirely reasonable, necessary, and appropriate in the circumstances."

Claire and John exchanged mutually questioning glances.

"What was this aspect of his life he so strongly wanted covered by an extra policy?" Claire hovering her pencil over her notebook like a falcon gliding high over an unsuspecting mouse in the field below, though still fiddling languidly with the fingers of her other free hand.

Brought to the very crumbling edge of his personal Rubicon Fallworthy sighed unhappily then came clean.

"He, Hersham, had an ungovernable fear of being buried alive after his death—or supposed death, that is. He so decided to take out a double indemnity policy covering just this eventuality; the policy being made out to the local Delacote City Seaman's Mission as legatees."

Silence wafted through the room; everyone therein silent, pondering on this new angle to the case.

"Don't see it." Claire, after a few moments consideration, making free with her interpretation of what had just been revealed.

"What?"

"He, Hersham makes out this dam' curious policy—excuse my language—then is murdered by the age-old method of having his throat slit with a sharp knife?" Claire assured of the logic of her take on the matter. "Doesn't make sense; I mean, surely the culprit would've tried, if they coveted the policy quicker rather than waiting till later, to make sure he, Hersham, was buried alive? I mean, otherwise, what would be the point?"

Faced with this interpretation of the tragedy Fallworthy sat back on his chair, pondering the matter on his own time.

"—er, well; er, that is, er,—"

"Don't hold water." John making his executive decision on the theory. "Not from any angle. OK, so he took out this curious policy; made out to the Seaman's Mission, OK. So, where's that get any criminal looking to make a quick buck out'ta same? Nowhere! Slitting Hersham's throat'd only be self-defeating, after all."

"Yes, I see where you're coming from, certainly." Fallworthy visibly losing confidence in his own theory by the second.

"As Claire says, for that theory to work to full capacity Hersham would've had to be buried alive for real; though how anyone was going to verify same I don't know. I mean, were they going to dig the coffin up and open it after six months, or what, just to check?"

"Yes."

John and Claire sat stupefied.

"What?" John taking the foremost part in querying this amazing confession.

Looking rather more embarrassed than it was almost humanly possible to achieve Fallworthy nodded soulfully, actually hanging his head as he did so.

"It was written into the policy that he should be exhumed after the passing of six months and a duly respected Doctor examine his remains to clarify just that possibility—that he had been alive when originally buried."

Claire was first to respond to this incredible admission.

"I don't believe it! I do not believe it. Good God, that wouldn't be allowed; It'd need the Coroner's approval, and I don't see that happening in a decade of Sundays."

"And, sorry to bring this up but—what about embalming and the Undertaker's administrations?" John focusing on the purely physical nature of such a situation. "I mean, sometime early in the Undertaker's work they'd know for dam' sure their latest customer was decidedly dead, not faking it in any way?"

Fallworthy, having buckled under the strain of his pet theory being so thoroughly demolished by experts, now quivered visibly as he answered this latest attack on his credibility.

"Hersham had also put it in writing in the policy that he was not to undergo any form of embalming or preliminary Undertaker's work; that he should be buried within a couple of days of his death, as is, in a plain coffin with no preliminary medical attentions whatever. Then to be exhumed and examined, as stated in his policy, after six months to establish the reliability of his original physical state when so interred."

Claire, overwhelmed by the incredible nature of what she was hearing, raised and lowered her arms in an expression of absolute incredulousness.

"That is the dam'dest thing I've ever heard. I don't believe a dam' word of it; it ain't possible!"

Another aspect had reared its head to John in the meantime.

"How does that acquaint with his position as a member of the Church? He was a Vicar, after all! Surely what you've just told us goes against almost every tenet of the Church he testified to accepting?"

Fallworthy, caught between a metaphysical though just as damaging Scylla and Charybdis, appeared to now almost be on the verge of tears.

"He had, so he informed me about a year ago, lost his Faith entirely—having no remaining belief in his religious foundation at all!" Fallworthy shaking his head, a gleam of something unhinged suddenly appearing in his glinting eyes and physical manner. "I tried to wrestle with him, mentally speaking, over his difficulty; but in the end it only seemed to harden his initial statement of intent. The man was an idiot, of course; you both see that obviously. It was, in the end, the only possible course left open to me, to retrieve his immortal soul from eternal damnation! Of course, it put a certain liability on my own soul; but I was, am indeed still, confident that a short discussion over the matter, man to man, on my own arrival at the Pearly Gates and St Peter's presence, would clarify the matter entirely, so allowing of my own entry into the Promised Land without further difficulty."

In reality, for the last ten minutes of this curious debate, John and Claire had been exchanging a series of knowing glances and nearly invisible physical messages through minute coded hand gestures; the end result being that they had already arrived at the conclusion they were in the presence of someone pretty much out of their mind. So, when Fallworthy with a quick movement opened a drawer on his side of the table and raised a nasty looking long knife towards the duo it was the work of milli-seconds for them both to produce their firearms in response.

Faced with this overbearing defensive action, so heavily outgunning him in every possible way, Fallworthy stared across the table with the wide-open eyes of both madness and disbelief combined; then he dropped the knife, lowered his head between his hands and burst into tears, his back shaking with the power of his wretchedness.

"OK, Claire, you go out to that other room an' call Fletcher while I stay here an' cover him. Don't worry, he's shot his play and's got nothing left!"

—O—

The poky office on the third floor of the 5th Precinct continued to reflect all the careworn shabbiness it had accumulated over the mostly unloved years of its existence; behind the scuffed desk Inspector Fletcher sat enthroned on his hard leather chair as much like a King in residence as anything outside a second-rate theater. Right now he had just sat back after hearing the fine details of John and Claire's odyssey in Weyfield Church, and was less than enthusiastic as a result.

"I simply wouldn't believe same except we've had him under examination for the last three hours by our best head-doctors here; and, from their first report twenty minutes since, they corroborate everything you've both told us. Fallworthy's as cracked as a broken crockery milk-jug for real, apparently! And the knife still had blood, Hersham's type, on it!"

"Sad case!" Claire putting forth her impression of her past day's work.

"Suppose there'll be a quick trial an' then a long residence at the local funny farm for him?" John rather more cold-blooded in his response.

"Pretty much, yeah." Fletcher chewing some more on his latest unlit cigar. "Though as to his ever gettin' out again, I wouldn't bet big on that result."

Claire, having become depressed over the whole tragedy, still had some details to clear up.

"What about Hersham's cock-a-mamy double indemnity policy? It hold up in court, at all?"

"Not a hope." Fletcher clear on this matter from long experience. "What that Insurance Company were doin' acceptin' same gets me, is all! Not a dry-as-dust pinch of it standing the test of legal supervision. I looked in'ta it; it's been revoked across the board—when Hersham goes under, three days from today, it'll be after all the specialised attentions the best Undertaker in Delacote can give his deceased remains; and there ain't the slightest expectation Hersham'll undertake, excuse my joke, a reappearance in six months time t'argue the point, whatever!"

"Ah! Oh, well!" Claire nodding quietly, not having expected anything else.

"Ummph!" John still with an unfinished matter to be taken into account. "What about our fees? Someone payin' us for our work. Or what?"

"Fallworthy told ya both the Diocese Synod'd take that on?" Fletcher raising an eyebrow in such a definitely negatory manner it depressed the hearts of his two listeners even before he continued. "Well, I've had a quick, almost distracted, reply from their HQ—they ain't gon'na, not the least brass cent!"

"Oh, sh-t." John accepting the inevitable, but not with any grace at all. "Well, come on, Claire, dinner beckons. I'll pay."

"Boss, you're a hero." Claire giving praise where due without limitation.

"Har!"

The End.

—O—

Another 'John Drage, Private Detective' story will arrive shortly.

—OOO—