Jack Lapham sipped his pint of beer slowly. It would have to last him all evening. He didn’t mind; it was the company in the Grey Horse that he liked.
Bill Weaver the barman leaned over the counter. ‘I could top that pint up for you, Jack. On the house?’
Jack smiled and shook his head. ‘Thanks, Bill, but no thanks. Everyone’s going without. We’re all in this war for the long haul; if we don’t tighten our belts and pull together for England, we may as well let the Germans march down Piccadilly tomorrow.’ He combed his fingers through thinning black hair, already greying at the edges. ‘Besides, I’m on duty later; wouldn’t do if the villagers saw their local bobby rolling around drunk, would it?’
The barman chuckled. ‘Fair enough, mate.’
The door creaked open. A chilly draught swirled into the bar as a stranger hurried inside. His dark hair was greased flat to a thin skull, shrewd bloodshot eyes darting around the room. He cradled a brown paper parcel under one arm.
‘Evening, sir,’ Bill smiled, ‘and what can I get you?’
‘Nuffin,’ the stranger croaked. He jabbed a grubby finger at his parcel. ‘S’more a case of what I can get you!’
‘A case of whisky would be nice.’
‘Nah!’ the young man scowled. He glanced warily at Jack then beckoned for Bill to join him over in a quiet corner. Although he muttered in that low, hoarse voice, Jack could still hear most of his words: ‘Nice bit o’ beef … fresh as a daisy … ten shillings!’
‘No ration coupons,’ the barman shrugged.
‘Nah! Don’t need none. Nice bit o’ beef. Cook it up. Serve beef sandwiches to the customers, eh? Just nine shillings to yer, guv!’
Bill sniffed in disdain. ‘Probably dog meat.’
‘Heh! I’ll give yer dog meat. Killed just down the road, only this mornin’. Fresh as a daisy!’ The stranger’s red-rimmed eyes narrowed. ‘I can sell this fer twice the price in London, mate!’
‘Then good luck to you,’ Bill smiled coolly, and turned to polish a glass.
‘Yer’ll be sorry!’ the stranger snarled, glared over at Jack then scuttled out the door.
Bill met the eyes of his old friend. ‘Heard all that, Jack?’
‘Every word, Bill.’
‘Surprised you didn’t arrest him.’
‘I’m not in me uniform yet … besides, I’m more interested to find out who’s supplying this meat.’
Bill rubbed his stubbled chin — new razors were hard to come by these days. ‘My money’s on those Wades; a shifty family if ever I saw one.’
‘Then I’ll start there,’ Jack promised. ‘If I’m not back by twelve, call the station, won’t you? Cheers.’ He drained the last of his beer, pulled on his coat and set off home to change into his uniform.
Blackout curfew had begun as Jack wheeled his bicycle down the slippery lane towards Trent Marsh Farm. The thin slit in his front lamp shroud showed almost no light, and the faint moon was little help. The constable cursed as he slithered along the rutted track, ankle-deep in mud, overhanging branches snatching at his helmet. Fifty-nine in March — so much for that distant retirement dream!
The farm gate was slimy with moss as he pushed it open. No lights glowed from the farmhouse windows — Jack would have been angry if he’d seen any. Some of these farmers were so careless about blackout. They knew the Air Raid Precaution wardens would never venture this far out into the freezing damp night, away from their cosy firesides.
He propped his bike against the farmhouse wall, unhooked his lamp and shone it through the frosty window. No shutters or curtains. It was deserted, silent and cold. But no hay or straw in any corner of the large barn. Odd.
In the field behind the farmhouse was a haystack shrouded under a waterproof cover. Nothing here to suggest a slaughterhouse.
He stumbled against an oil drum with a dull clang and rubbed his knee, cursing the darkness. Then he realised the nighttime blindness was now his greatest ally. Although he could see almost nothing his ears were sharpened. And his sense of smell. Follow your nose, Jackie, his father had always told him. You’ll sniff out trouble quicker that way.
Owls wailed in the distant woods. Rats scuttled in the barn. And another faint noise from behind the empty building. Someone was sawing. Jack strained his ears and crept along the haystack. The soft sawing wasn’t the soft cutting of wooden logs. It was the brittle sawing of bones he always heard passing the butcher’s shop.
The sawing stopped. Muffled voices, then a harsh staccato chopping. Jack edged along the side of the haystack and peered around the corner. The wafer-thin moon lit the field, silvering every blade of grass. It was empty!
Now the sawing echoed from behind him. He hurried along the haystack, turned the corner and gazed out into the deserted farmyard. What now? Ghosts? Jack was almost ready to run back to his bicycle. Then a loud, ugly laugh barked from his left. From the haystack.
No … inside the stack.
Using his lamp he carefully retraced his steps, treading softly along the haystack, feeling blindly until his fingers scraped hard wooden boards. Hay bales had been piled high against the walls of a wooden outhouse to disguise it. But he found the hidden door and slipped inside.
The glaring oil lamps made him squint as he stepped inside from the frosty November night. The sickly-sweet stench of blood was overpowering. But most appalling were the three pairs of flinty eyes that turned on him.
Farmer Wade held a large meat axe and each son clutched a dripping carving knife.
‘Evenin’, Constable,’ Wade grunted. His stony face cracked into a wide smile, baring crooked yellow teeth. ‘Come fer your share, ‘ave you?’
Jack Lapham’s eyes drifted over the pink, naked, blood-spattered carcasses. ‘Have you a license to slaughter and sell these livestock?’
The taller son swaggered forward. ‘Don’t need one. These animals are casualties, see? P’raps you’d like a nice steak … free of charge, of course.’ The knife twisted in his hands, flashing under the lamplight.
‘That cow couldn’t walk.’ The second son smirked. ‘We had to put her down.’ His fingers drummed along the knife handle.
The Special Constable’s mouth tightened. ‘And these two calves?’ Watch those knives, careful, keep watching the knives …
‘Motherless,’ Farmer Wade shrugged. ‘Poor beasts had to die.’
‘That looks like a pig — don’t tell me the cow was his mother too!’
‘No, it was old, lame … Believe me, Constable!’
‘Funny — I don’t. Let’s see if a jury at Exeter Crown Court will believe your claptrap, shall we?’
Wade’s face flushed red. ‘One more death won’t make any difference,’ he growled.
‘Might as well be hanged for a cop as a pig,’ his taller son muttered, and stepped towards the policeman with his knife rising. ‘Nobody’ll ever know what happened to you!’
Jack’s hand drifted to the truncheon at his belt. ‘Careful with that, laddie. Interfering with a policeman’s a prison offence.’ He drew his weapon, its hefty weight a reassuring comfort. ‘Real dark night out there — you might fall down and hurt yourself. Cracked ribs. Broken skull.’
The farmer’s son scowled, eyeing the stout oaken club. ‘You wouldn’t dare, old man.’
‘After being threatened with knives? Watch me.’ Jack forced a calm smile, despite his churning stomach. ‘Bill Anderson down the pub knows where I am. He’ll call the station if I’m not back by midnight.’
‘Yer bluffing,’ the other son sneered.
‘Young bloke, London accent, greasy black hair. Came into the Grey Horse tonight and tried to sell some meat. Your meat. If you know who I’m talking about then you know I’m telling the truth.’
‘An’ if we don’t?’ Farmer Wade bared yellow teeth. ‘Yer a dead man. You ain’t got nuffin’.’
Jack Lapham shrugged. ‘Not quite.’ The solid hefty truncheon smacked down into his palm. ‘I have this.’
For a long moment the only sound was the hissing of the oil lamps and the distant owls wailing. Finally Farmer Wade ran his thumb along the blade of his axe and smiled. ‘Only trying to make a living, Constable. Only trying to make a living!’
© 2021 | Tom Burton