‘We’ll walk. It’s only up the road.’
So we did.
Two young men. Professionals in three piece suits. Not as unusual then as it would be now perhaps. We strode across the old market centre of an old mill town. The town was searching for a new direction. We knew where we were going. The mills that had brought prosperity and self confidence were almost all gone, one or two hanging on by their fingernails. Our client wasn’t.
He was dead.
‘What did he die of?’
‘Heart attack I think.’ Andrew stopped at the crossing. They really needed to do something about the traffic snaking its way through a medieval street plan. I said so to Andrew.
‘They’ll put the ring road in soon.’
He looked at me as the green man appeared and the beeper bleeped.
‘You should stay a bit longer in the Leigh on Friday nights.’ He winked.
‘I think I’m still at the house clearance stage.’
We turned off the main street and disappeared into the warren of early nineteenth century terraces.
‘Me too, but get yourself noticed.’
‘Yeah. Eddie, Keith and Simon were all in last week when the planning crowd walk in, straight upstairs. Eddie and co. buy a round and follow. Monday he tells me there are interesting developments on the old railway line into town.’
We turned a couple of corners in quick succession then took a left down some cobbled steps.
‘Where’s that going to go then? When it gets into the old goods yard? There are properties all round there now.’
Andrew slid his forefinger along the side of his nose and tapped it.
‘Keep an eye on the conveyancing files. See where your mate at the Rugby Club puts his mortgages out to in the next few months and who’s buying.’
‘But it’ll be blighted.’
‘Exactly. Lots of lovely compensation. What’s a terraced cottage at the moment? Eight grand?’
We entered a courtyard that could have been out of a Dickens novel.
‘Bit more, bit less depending where it is.’
‘Yes, well you can rest assured you can buy it for seven and sell it for twelve when the council values it for you if the road goes through and you sell without trouble, Deal yourself in, then you’ll be cooking.’
We stopped before a peeling green door.
I took the bunch with its clean new string and cardboard tag and jangled it in front of Andrew.
‘Want to play “guess the key”?’
‘What the hell did he want with all these?’ He took the bunch, squinted at the tumbler lock and selected a Yale type key. It stuck half way in.
‘Bugger! Your turn.’ He handed the bunch back.
I discounted all the obvious mortice keys and selected the most worn Yale. It slid into the lock and with a slight wiggle spun the cylinder. The door pushed clear.
Andrew gave me his dead pan look as he stepped through the door, then stopped and wrinkled his nose.
‘What’s the matter?’ I asked. Then I got it as the air rolled out past him. It wasn’t so bad as to make you gag but there was something really odd about it.
‘Did he die in here?’
‘Don’t know. I guess he must have.’
We went in a bit further. The door opened into a short hallway with stairs facing you and a door on the right. The smell wasn’t quite as bad now the door had been open a minute. We left the front door open and moved forward to the door to what was obviously the living room. The smell rolled over us again, very strong now. We both cleared our throats. Someone had to go in first. Andrew had been first into the house, so my turn.
I walked in, eyes flicking, hoping not to see anything too horrible. It was a standard terraced room. Some had a front room and a living room and a kitchen. This was configured with a living room a kitchen and a scullery. The living room had nothing in it you wouldn’t expect to find. I shook myself free of the smell.
‘He can’t be here can he? He’s with the undertaker. That’s why we’re here.’ I rationalised.
Andrew nodded and went and shut the front door. It was quieter than I would have expected. It didn’t smell like a body. Not entirely. Not really. It wasn’t that decayed meat smell, not the sickly sweetness underneath, although there was a hint of it. We stood on the threadbare carpet and shrugged.
‘Let’s get on with it.’ I said. We each had a plastic bag with a couple of foolscap envelopes in case we discovered things we needed to take back to the office. You never knew what. Simon and Andrew had found a bewildering variety of oddly coloured old bank notes in a house last year none of which were now legal tender. The Bank of England redeemed them at the face value of just over a thousand pounds. I had wondered if the estate would have been better off selling them as collectors’ items; but it wasn’t my decision.
‘You check the sideboard I’ll do the shelves then we’ll move back through the kitchen.’ Andrew said.
I put the bag on the top of the cluttered sideboard. There were ornaments and trinkets and lots of bits of metal lying about in the dust. I squatted down and opened the cupboard doors underneath the drawers.
I rubbed my fingers together, they were getting grubby already. Dusting had obviously not been a priority. I felt the grime as I took in the collection of china and odd mementoes. I rubbed my fingers again. They felt greasy, which was odd. Old polish? I discounted the china as definitely not Meissen or Ming and went on to the drawers. They too were greasy and a bit smutty even. I found some letters, a few bills, one insurance policy, a cheque book and a building society pass book. They all went into an envelope which I signed and Andrew countersigned.
‘It’s really grubby.’ I said.
Andrew looked at his hands. They too were showing signs of dirt. ‘It’s like he’s been smearing butter or something on the wood.’
We moved through to the kitchen. Everything there had the same soiled feel to it, but oddly it was not as bad as the living room. There was nothing of interest to his estate there. No solid silver cutlery or Fabergé eggs tucked away in drawers. We moved back to the scullery. If anything it was cleanest room so far. There was an old fashioned ringer washing machine but beyond that it was mostly given over to metalworking tools and a bench with boxes and boxes of nuts, bolts, screws and other bits of metal unidentifiable to me.
‘What did he do for a living?’ I asked.
‘Toolshop engineer for Hewitt’s mill.’
‘Brought his work home with him then.’
‘Retired last year. This is his hobby stuff.’
‘One year out of harness. Not much is it?’
‘Poor old sod.’
We walked back through the kitchen and I checked the grill and the oven. Clean as a whistle.
‘I checked that. No hidden millions in the cooker.’ Andrew laughed.
‘I just wondered if he’d left a meal on or something. It smells like old bacon.’
‘Someone cleaned it up if it was. Gas is off according to Len.’
Len was the firm’s Legal Exec who had sent us on this errand. It needed two of us to make sure everything was above board. It was why we stuck together in the house. You didn’t want someone accusing you of walking off with the half of the sovereigns Uncle Tom had always told them was in the back parlour. We went upstairs.
One small bedroom had been converted into a bathroom. You could just about swing a cat but there was nowhere to hide a fiver, never mind a bag of sovereigns. We considered the shaving kit for a moment, shuddered at the cutthroat razor and moved on.
The second bedroom was converted into another workroom. The work bench was covered in tools and metal again. All clean and relatively tidy. There were a couple of drawers, in one of which we found twenty pounds in pound notes. They went into an envelope and we sealed it, signed it and noted the room.
The bedroom was sad, the bed unmade, a few scattered clothes. The wardrobe was full of clothes from a different era and the overpowering smell of naphthalene and paradicholorobenzene mothballs. There was nothing of value or significance in the pockets but at least the stink of mothballs overpowered the stale burnt bacon smell.
My hands were nearly black and sticky and my suit would be going into the dry cleaners the next morning.
‘All done?’ I asked.
‘Couple of girlie mags in the chest of drawers and about a dozen watches. That’s it. Time to go.’ We bagged the watches and replaced the magazines.
We descended and stuck our head into the living room for a last look round. No obvious Picasso on the wall we’d missed. A few shelves, the sideboard a television, a couple of easy chairs one of which looking the worse for wear and stained with what was presumably the side effects of our client’s demise
We locked up and left.
It was almost five when we got back to the office.
‘All right?’ Julie, the receptionist asked.
‘Yes. Need to wash up though.’ Andrew held up his hands.
‘Ew! What have you been, going through the coal hole?’
The talking brought Len out of his office.
‘Come on, hand over the loot before you go anywhere.’
We followed him into his office and placed the keys and the bags onto his desk and talked him through the finds.
‘No treasure chests that lot open then?’ He said nodding at the bunch of keys.
‘No. He just collected metal bits and pieces, tools, watches and obviously keys.’
‘Fair enough. You’d better go and get him washed off you by the look of things.’
Len had a big smile on his face as he tamped down his pipe.
‘Didn’t I say to take some gloves or something?’
‘No you didn’t.’ I said, holding my hands away from my sides. ‘Should you have done?’
He laughed. ‘Didn’t you read the file?’
‘No identified close relatives, house search for valuables and financial papers.’ Andrew said.
‘Clerks eh? Page two, cause of death.’ Len smiled, and picked up the folder as if to refresh his memory which was obviously not required.’
‘Neighbours called the police when they hadn’t seen him for a few days and…Did you notice anything odd?’
We shrugged and I held my hands up. ‘Everything was covered in greasy dust. Oh and it smelt like he’d left a fry up on.’
‘Neighbours knocked and then opened the letterbox to shout. Then they called the police. They called the fire brigade.’ Len smiled sadly. ‘He’d been sat in front of the gas fire, watching tele. Died of a heart attack. Nobody missed him, retired, no family, bit of a loner. Sat there in front of that fire for quite a while. Not hot enough to burst into flames. Just enough to cook his legs through to the bone.’ He nodded at our hands. ‘That grease and soot is what’s left of his legs.’
Andrew and I looked at each other, at our hands and headed for the washroom followed by Len’s chuckles.