The spell of fine weather which so often occurs in the middle of October is known as St. Luke’s Little Summer. The “little summer” part needs no explanation; the St. Luke bit derives from its coincidence with the eighteenth, which is that saint’s day. Basking in the warm autumn sunlight, Station Sergeant Camb delivered this piece of interesting but useless information to Harry Wild and smiled sententiously.
“Is that so? Maybe I’ll do a diary note on it.” Wild sucked at his smelly old pipe and rested leather- patched elbows on the counter top. He yawned. ‘Haven’t you got anything more exciting for me?”
Camb caught the yawn and yawned himself. He remarked for the third time on the closeness of the weather and then he opened his book.
“Two vehicles in collision at the junction of Kingsmarkham High Street and Queen Street,” he read. “Nobody hurt. That was Sunday, Nothing in that for the Courier, is there? Girl of seventeen missing, but we know where she is all right. Oh, and there’s a baboon got lost from the pet shop . . .” Wild looked up, lazily enquiring. “. . . Only they found it up on their balcony, tucking in to the waste bin.”
“What a dump,” said Wild. He put away his note book. “Still, I opted for the quiet life. I could be up in Fleet Street tomorrow if I fancied it. Only got to say the word and I’d be up there where it’s all happening.”
“Sure you would.” Camb knew very well that Wild remained as chief reporter of the Kingsmarkham Courier because idleness and general ineptitude, as well now as his advancing years, made him unfit for any more illustrious newspaper. Wild had been coming into the police station for more years than Camb cared to remember and every time he came he talked about Fleet Street as if he had rejected it and not it him. But they sustained the fiction for the sake of peace and pleasantness. “Much the same for me,” he said. “Many a time in the old days Mr. Wexford begged me to consider the C.I.D. but I wouldn’t. I’m not ambitious I don’t say I wouldn’t have had the ability, mind.”
“Of course you would’ve.” Playing fair, Wild returned praise for praise. “Where does it get you, though, ambition? Look at Inspector Burden, just to take an example. Worn out, and not forty yet, I daresay.”
“Well, he’s had a lot of trouble, hasn’t he? Losing his wife like that and two kids to bring up.”
Wild gave a heavy lugubrious sigh. “That,” be, said, “was a tragic business. Cancer, wasn’t it?”
“That’s right. Fit as a fiddle this time last year and dead by Christmas. Only thirty-five. It makes you think”
“In the midst of life. Looks to me as if he’s taken it hard. I suppose they were a devoted couple?”
“More like sweethearts than man and wife.” Camb cleared his throat and stood up straighter as the lift opened and Chief Inspector Wexford marched out.
“Gossiping again, Sergeant? Good afternoon, Harry.” Wexford just glanced at the two empty teacups on the counter. “This place,” he said, “gets more like a Mothers’ Union bun fight every week.”
“I was just telling Mr. Wild,” said Camb with dignity, “about our escaped baboon.”
“My God, that’s hot news. There’s a story in that, Harry. Terrorising the populace, mothers afraid to let their kids out of their sight. Is any woman safe while this wild beast roams our meadows?”
“It’s been found, sir. In a dustbin.”
“Sergeant, if I didn’t know you to be incapable of it, I should say you were mocking me.” Wexford quivered with silent laughter. “When Inspector Burden comes in, tell him I've gone, will you? I want a few hours to enjoy our Indian Summer.”
“St. Luke’s Little Summer, sir.”
“Indeed? I stand corrected. I wish I had the time to devote to digging up these fascinating pieces of meteorological lore. I’ll give you a lift, Harry, if you’ve finished your monkey business.”
Camb sniggered. “Thanks very much,” said Wild. It was gone five but still very warm. The sergeant stretched and wished Constable Peach would appear so that he could send him to the canteen for another cup of tea. Half an hour and he would knock off.
Presently the phone rang.
A woman’s voice, low and rich. Actressy, Camb thought. “I’m sorry to trouble you but my little boy . . . He’s - well, he was out playing and he’s - he’s disappeared. I don’t . . . Am I making a fuss over nothing?”
“Not at all, madam,” said Camb soothingly. “That’s what we’re here for, to be troubled. What name is it?”
“Lawrence. I live at 61 Fontaine Road, Stowerton.
Camb hesitated for a second. Then he remembered Wexford had told him all cases of missing children must be reported to C.I.D. They didn’t want an other Stella Rivers . . .
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Lawrence. I’m going to put you through to someone who will help you.” He got the switchboard and heard Sergeant Martin’s voice, put down the receiver.
Sergeant Camb sighed. It was a pity Harry had gone like that, just when the only piece of news had come in for weeks. He could give p0or old Harry a ring . . . Tomorrow would do. The kid would be found, come to that, like that monkey had been. Missing people and things usually were found in Kingsmarkham and in more or less good order. Camb turned his head in the sunlight like someone turning a piece of toast in the red light of a fire. It was twenty past five. By six he’d be sitting down to his dinner in Severn Court, Station Road, then a little jaunt out with the wife to the Dragon, then telly. . .
“Having a nice little kip, Sergeant?” said a cold voice with an edge to It like a freshly unwrapped razor blade. Camb nearly jumped out of his skin.
“Sorry, Mr. Burden. It’s the heat, makes you sleepy. St. Luke’s Little Summer, they call it, on account of . . .”
“Are you off your bloody head?” Burden had never sworn in the old days. It had been quite a joke in the police station the way he never took the name of the Lord in vain or said bloody or any of the things everyone else said. Camb liked the old days better. He felt his face reddening and it wasn’t the sun. “Any messages for me?” Burden snapped.
Camb looked at him sadly. He was terribly sorry for Inspector Burden, his heart ached for his bereaved colleague, and that was why he forgave Burden for humiliating him and showing him up in front of Martin and Gates and even Peach. Camb couldn’t imagine what it must be like to lose one’s wife, the mother of one’s children, and be alone and desolate. Burden was so thin. The sharp high cheekbones jutted out of his taut skin and his eyes glittered nastily when you glanced at them but they were unbearable when you looked deeper. Once he had been rather a handsome man, English-looking, blond and ruddy, but now all the colour and life had gone out of him and he was a sort of grey. He still wore a black tie, pulled so tight you thought it would choke him.
Once, when it had first happened, the sergeant had expressed his sympathy along with everyone else, and that was all right, that was expected. And then, later, he had tried to say something more sincere and more personal, and Burden had swung on him like a man drawing a sword. He had said terrible things. It was more terrible to hear them coming from those mild cool lips than from the mouths of the Kingsmarkham roughs who used them habitually. It was like opening a nice book written by someone whose books you liked and asked the library to keep for you, opening it and reading a word that used to be printed with an f and a dash.
So, although Camb wanted at this moment to say something kind - wasn’t he old enough to be this man’s father? - he only sighed and replied in a blank official voice, “Mr. Wexford went home, sir. He said be . . .”