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A pinch of snuff

Reginald Hill

'If you find you hate the idea of getting out of bed in the morning, think of it this way – it's a man's work I'm getting up to do.'

MARCUS AURELIUS: Meditations

Chapter 1

All right. All right! gasped Pascoe in his agony. It's June the sixth and it's Normandy. The British Second Army under Montgomery will make its beach-heads between Arromanches and Ouistreham while the Yanks hit the Cotentin peninsula. Then…

'That'll do. Rinse. Just the filling to go in now. Thank you, Alison.'

He took the grey paste his assistant had prepared and began to fill the cavity. There wasn't much, Pascoe observed gloomily. The drilling couldn't have taken more than half a minute.

'What did I get this time?' asked Shorter, when he'd finished.

'The lot. You could have had the key to Monty's thunderbox if I'd got it.'

'I obviously missed my calling,' said Shorter. 'Still, it's nice to share at least one of my patients' fantasies. I often wonder what's going on behind the blank stares. Alison, you can push off to lunch now, love. Back sharp at two, though. It's crazy afternoon.

‘What’s that?' asked Pascoe, standing up and fastening his shirt collar which he had always undone surreptitiously till he got on more familiar terms with Shorter.

'Kids,' said Shorter. 'All ages. With mum and without. I don't know which is worse. Peter, can you spare a moment?'

Pascoe glanced at his watch.

'As long as you're not going to tell me I've got pyorrhoea.'

'It's all those dirty words you use,' said Shorter. 'Come into the office and have a mouthwash.'

Pascoe followed him across the vestibule of the old terraced house which had been converted into a surgery. The spring sunshine still had to pass through a stained-glass panel on the front door and it threw warm gules like bloodstains on to the cracked tiled floor.

There were three of them in the practice: MacCrystal, the senior partner, so senior he was almost invisible; Ms Lacewing, early twenties, newly qualified, an advanced thinker; and Shorter himself. He was in his late thirties but it didn't show except at the neck. His hair was thick and black and he was as lean and muscular as a fit twenty- year-old. Pascoe who was a handful of years younger indulged his resentment at the other man's youthfulness by never mentioning it. Over the long period during which he had been a patient, a pleasant first name relationship had developed between the men. They had shared their fantasy fears about each other's professions and Pascoe's revelation of his Gestapo-torture confessions under the drill had given them a running joke, though it had not yet run them closer together than sharing a table if they met in a pub or restaurant.

Perhaps, thought Pascoe as he watched Shorter pouring a stiff gin and tonic, perhaps he's going to invite me and Ellie to his twenty-first party. Or sell us a ticket to the dentists' ball. Or ask me to fix a parking ticket.

And then the afterthought: what a lovely friend I make!

He took his drink and waited before sipping it, as though that would commit him to something.

'You ever go to see blue films?' asked Shorter.

'Ah,' said Pascoe, taken aback. 'Yes. I've seen some. But officially.'

'What? Oh, I get you. No, I don't mean the real hard porn stuff that breaks the law. Above the counter porn's what I mean. Rugby club night out stuff.'

'The Naughty Vicar of Wakefield. That kind of thing?'

'That's it, sort of.'

'No, I can't say I'm an enthusiast. My wife's always moaning they seem to show nothing else nowadays. Stops her going to see the good cultural stuff like Deep Throat.'

'I know. Well, I'm not an enthusiast either, you understand, but the other night, well, I was having a drink with a couple of friends and one of them's a member of the Calliope Club…’

'Hang on,' said Pascoe, frowning. 'I know the Calli. That's not quite the same as your local Gaumont, is it? You've got to be a member and they show stuff there which is a bit more controversial than your Naughty Vicars or your Danish Dentists. Sorry!'

'Yes,' agreed Shorter. 'But it's legal, isn't it?'

'Oh yes. As long as they don't overstep the mark. But without knowing what you're going to tell me, Jack, you ought to know there's a lot of pressure to close the place. Well, you will know that anyway if you read the local rag. So have a think before you tell me anything that could involve your mates or even you.'

Which just about defines the bounds of our friendship, thought Pascoe. Someone who was closer, I might listen to and keep it to myself; someone not so close, I'd listen and act. Shorter gets the warning. So now it's up to him.

'No,' said Shorter. 'It's nothing to do with the Club or its members, not really. Look, we went along to the show. There were two films, one a straightforward orgy job and the other, well, it was one of these sex and violence things. Droit de Seigneur they called it. Nice simple story line. Beautiful girl kidnapped on wedding night by local loony squire. Lots of nasty things done to her in a dungeon, ending with her being beaten almost to death just before hubbie arrives with rescue party. The squire then gets a taste of his own medicine. Happy ending.'

'Nice,' said Pascoe. 'Then it's off for a curry and chips?'

'Something like that. Only, well, it's daft, and I hardly like to bother anyone. But it's been bothering me.'

Pascoe looked at his watch again and finished his drink.

'You think it went too far?' he said. 'One for the vice squad. Well, I'll mention it, Jack. Thanks for the drink, and the tooth.'

'No,' said Shorter. 'I've seen worse. Only in this one, I think the girl really did get beaten up.'

'I'm sorry?'

'In the dungeon. The squire goes berserk. He's got these metal gauntlets on, from a suit of armour. And a helmet too. Nothing else. It was quite funny for a bit. Then he starts beating her. I forget the exact sequence but in the end it goes into slow motion; they always do, this fist hammers into her face, her mouth's open – she's screaming, naturally – and you see her teeth break. One thing I know about is teeth. I could swear those teeth really did break.'

'Good God!' said Pascoe. 'I'd better have another of these. You're saying that… I mean, for God's sake, a mailed fist! How'd she look at the end of the film? I've heard that the show must go on, but this is ridiculous!'

'She looked fine,' said Shorter. 'But they don’t need to take the shots in the order you see them, do they?'

'Just testing you,' said Pascoe. 'But you must admit it seems daft! I mean, you've no doubt the rest of the nastiness was all faked?'

'Not much. Not that they don't do sword wounds and whip lashes very well. But I've never seen a real sword wound or whip lash! Teeth I know. Let me explain. The usual thing in a film would be, someone flings a punch to the jaw, head jerks back, punch misses of course, on the sound track someone hammers a mallet into a cabbage, the guy on the screen spits out a mouthful of plastic teeth, shakes his head, and wades back into the fight.'

'And that's unrealistic?'

'I'll say,' said Shorter. 'With a bare fist it's unrealistic, with a metal glove it's impossible. No, what would really happen would be dislocation, probably fracture of the jaw. The lips and cheeks would splatter and the teeth be pushed through. A fine haze of blood and saliva would issue from the mouth and nose. You could mock it up, I suppose, but you'd need an actress with a double-jointed face.'

'And this is what you say happened in this film.'

'It was a flash,' said Shorter. 'Just a couple of seconds.'

'Anybody else say anything?'

'No,' admitted Shorter. 'Not that I heard.'

'I see,' said Pascoe, frowning. 'Now, why are you telling me this?'

     

 

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