Read The Confession Online

Authors: Charles Todd

The Confession

The Confession

Charles Todd


For Sally and for David, with much love. Rutledge is one county closer to Mill Barn . . . and next year will bring him even nearer. As promised.

And for Carolyn Marino, and everyone at HarperCollins/Morrow, for being the wonderful people you are. With much gratitude.

Chapter 1

The Essex Marshes, Summer 1915

he body rolled in the current gently, as if still alive. It was facedown, only the back and hips visible. It had been floating that way for some time. The men in the ancient skiff had watched it for a quarter of an hour, as if half expecting it to rise up and walk away before their eyes.

“He's dead, right enough,” one said. “One of ours, do you think?”

“This far up the Hawking? It's a German spy,” the second man said, nodding, as if that explained everything. “Bound to be. I say, leave him to the fish.”

“We won't know who he is until we pull him out, will we?” the third said and leaned out to touch the corpse with the boat hook.

“Here!” the first man cried out, as if this were sacrilege.

The body bobbed a little under the weight of the hook.

doesn't care,” the third man said. “Why should you?”

“Still and all—”

Turning the hook a little, he put the end under the dead man's collar and pulled. Under the impetus of the hook, the corpse came out of the reeds obediently, as if called, and floated toward the skiff until the shoulder of his dark, water-sodden uniform bumped lightly into the hull.

“A bloody officer.”

“He's been shot,” the third man said as the body shifted. “Look at that.”

“Turn him over,” the second man ordered, after peering at the back of the man's head.

With some difficulty, that was done, and all three stared into the dead face, flaccid from hours in the water.

“None of our fishermen,” the second man went on. “Don't know him atall. You?”

The first man shook his head. “I dunno. There's something familiar about him. I just can't put a name to him.”

“Let's have a look,” the third man said, and reached out to clutch the front of the sodden uniform, pulling him close enough to thrust his fingers into the man's breast pocket. He came away with a wallet stuffed with pound notes. He whistled in surprise.

The second man was already stretching out a hand for the trouser pocket nearest him, swearing as the skiff dipped alarmingly, and he had to kneel in the bottom of the boat. As the skiff steadied, he managed to dig into the wet cloth and extract more pound notes. “I'll be damned!”

Opening the wallet, the third man searched for identification. “Ah.” He pulled out a card from behind the wet notes. Squinting a little, he read, “ ‘Justin Fowler. London.' What's he doing here, dead, then?”

“I told you. A German spy.”

“You've got spies on the brain,” the third man snapped. “Get over it.”

There had been a spy scare not long before. Several waiters in London restaurants bore German names, and it was reported to the authorities that these men had been listening to private conversations while guests dined, looking for information to be sent back to Berlin. Nothing had come of it, as far as anyone in this part of Essex could discover. Mr. Newly had not been back to the city to visit his daughter, and thus the source of this bit of news had dried up before the spies had been arrested, shot, or deported, allowing for considerable speculation in The Rowing Boat at night. Much had been said about what should be done with such men if they were caught out here, far from London.

“Who do you suppose killed him?” the first man ventured. “Someone who followed him from London? It's not likely to have been anyone from the airfield. I've never seen them this far upriver.”

“Most likely whoever shot him shoved him into the water. Out of sight, out of mind.” The third man counted the wet notes a second time. “There's almost a hundred pounds here!”

“Flotsam and jetsam,” the second man said. “We found it, we keep it. Like a shipwreck.” He gazed round at the desolate sweep of water and marsh and gray sky as if half expecting to see a ship's hull half sunk in the deeper reaches beyond.

It was an unfortunate reference. They knew, all of them, what a shipwreck could lead to.

“What do we do with Mr. Fowler?” the first man asked dubiously. “If we bring him in, we'll have to summon the police. Someone is bound to want to know what's become of his money.”

“Tow him out to sea. Let him wash ashore somewhere else,” the third man said, scrabbling in the bottom of the skiff for a length of rope. This he proceeded to loop around the dead man's neck, and then he ordered, “Pick up yon oars. I can't row and pull at the same time, now can I?”

The first man sat where he was. “We're towing him nowhere until there's some understanding here. The money is evenly divided.”

“I saw him first,” the second man ventured. “Finder's fee.”

“The hell with that,” the third man retorted. “Share and share alike, I say. And then there's no room for one of us to feel denied and start trouble. We're all in this together. If one must hang, we'll all hang.”

“If I walk home today with this much money in my pocket, my wife will ask questions. What do I say, then?” the first man demanded. “She'll start the trouble, mark my words.”

“Then don't march home with the money stuffed in your pocket, you fool. Put it by, and use it a little at a time. You don't go waving it about first thing. Think of your old age, or your daughter's wedding, when a bit of the ready will come in handy. This poor devil doesn't need pounds wherever he's gone to, and it's a sheer waste to let the sea have it. We've done nothing wrong, have we? We didn't kill him, we didn't leave him here to be found by a schoolboy looking to fish for his dinner, we just took what he'd got no use for. Simple as that.”

Half persuaded, the first man said, “Still, I've never kept a secret from my wife. That'll take some doing.” He picked up his oar from the bottom of the skiff and put it in the water.

The third man laughed. “You've never needed to lie before. Now there's a reason.”

They began to pull against the incoming tide, heading for the mouth of the inlet, towing the body behind them. The first man scanned the shoreline as they passed.

“I don't see anyone about, looking this way. Do you think they can see what's at the end of the rope?”

“It just appears that we've forgot to bring the rope inboard.”

“What if he comes back again?” the first man asked, glancing over his shoulder. He was finding it a struggle to row against the current with that sluggish weight pulling at the rope attached to it.

“He won't,” the third man promised. “He hasn't been in the water all that long. You can tell, the fishes haven't truly got at him yet. But they will. And no one will be the wiser.”

But there he was wrong.

Chapter 2

London, Summer 1920

ergeant Hampton had brought the man to Rutledge's office, saying only, “Inspector Rutledge will help you, sir,” before vanishing back down the passage.

The visitor was a walking skeleton, pale except for his dark hair and his pain-ridden dark eyes. Sitting down gingerly in the chair that Rutledge offered, he seemed to feel the hardness of the seat in his bones, for he moved a little, as if hoping to find a more comfortable spot.

“My name is Wyatt Russell,” he began in a voice thinned by illness. “I'm dying of cancer, and I want to clear my conscience before I go. I killed a man in 1915 and got away with it. I want to confess to that murder now. There won't be time to try me and hang me, but at least you'll be able to close the file and I'll be able to sleep again.”

Rutledge considered him. People confessed for a good many reasons, not the least of which was to salve their conscience before facing a more lasting justice than that of the Crown. Sometimes they confessed to protect someone else.

“I was in France in 1915,” he said after a moment. “If this is where the murder occurred, you should speak to the Army, not to Scotland Yard.”

“It isn't an Army matter,” Russell replied shortly.

“Perhaps we should start at the beginning, if I'm to make use of your confession. Where do you live, Mr. Russell?”

“I have a house in the Essex marshes. I've lived there all my life, until the war. I have money of my own and have never needed to seek employment.”

“Was the Yard called in to investigate this murder, or was it handled by the Essex police?”

The man smiled. “I really can't say. I didn't hang about to see.”

“In that case, can you be certain you killed this man? He could have been wounded and recovered.”

“Yes. I'm absolutely certain. You see, he's my cousin. I'd have known if he'd cropped up again later. His name is—was—Justin Fowler. Not to speak ill of the dead, but we had our differences, he and I, and in the end they were serious enough that I had to make a decision. That doesn't excuse killing him, I realize that. I'm simply trying to set the record straight.”

“Was a woman involved?”

Russell was disconcerted. “A woman? Ah. A love triangle. Sorry to disappoint you, but it wasn't that simple. And I'm not prepared to go into any more detail. Suffice it to say, I killed him and got rid of the body. It was during the war. People were enlisting, going to work in the factories. A time of upheaval, change. No one noticed when he went missing.”

“The more we learn about a murder, the sooner we can determine who is guilty and who isn't. Establishing motive is an important part of an inquiry.”

“But I've just told you—I've confessed to killing him. I can show you how and where, and what became of the body. I can't believe you need any more than that.” His face had flushed, adding ugly blotches of red to his gray complexion.

“You've come to the police,” Rutledge said, wondering what was behind the man's sudden anger, “of your own free will. Now it's necessary for the Yard to look into your confession and draw its own conclusions. A motive will tell us to what extent you are guilty of this crime. What role the victim played in antagonizing you—”

“Damn it, man, dead is dead.” He glanced around, as if expecting to find answers in the plain walls and dusty window glass. Or was he searching for a way to retreat from what he'd confessed to? Rutledge thought it likely, and Russell's next words proved him right. “I shouldn't have come. It was selfish of me. I just didn't want to die with this knowledge on my soul.” His gaze returned to Rutledge. “If you can't help me, I'll leave and we can forget I ever walked through your door.”

“You've admitted to murder—” he began.

“Have I?” The man's mouth quirked. “My doctor will tell you it's just the morphine speaking. I have hallucinations, you know. It's difficult sometimes to tell true from false.” He rose to go. “I'm sorry to have taken up your time, Mr. Rutledge. Dying is not something to relish. It is something to endure. No matter what the poets may tell you.”

He reached for the back of the chair to steady himself, then said, “I doubt we'll meet again.”

He went out the door without looking back, a man in great pain, walking upright by an effort of will, Rutledge thought. Pride was sometimes the last vanity to go.

After a moment, Rutledge stood up and went after him. “Is there somewhere you must go? Or will you have lunch with me?” he asked as he caught Russell up.

“Lunch? I can hardly swallow a mouthful of tea without nausea.”

“It doesn't matter. I'd like your company.”

Russell considered him. “Why should you wish to sit across a table from this gaunt wasteland of a man? If you think you'll convince me to change my mind about coming here, you're wrong. I have a strong will. It has kept me going longer than my doctors thought possible.” He smiled at that, transforming his face to a shadow of what it might have been before his illness.

“I was in the war,” Rutledge said simply. “I have seen death before.”

After a moment Russell nodded. “I'm at The Marlborough. They do a decent roast lamb with mint sauce. I can enjoy the sauce still.”

The Marlborough would not have been Rutledge's choice. He had gone there last with Meredith Channing. It wasn't a memory he cared to revisit. But he had a feeling that if he suggested another restaurant, he could well lose Wyatt Russell.

The hotel was not very far away, but Rutledge drove them there, and Russell sat beside him in silence. He got out of the motorcar with some difficulty, but Rutledge wisely stayed where he was, offering no assistance.

Inside, Reception was busy, but the dining room was still mostly empty, since it was early for a meal.

They were conducted to a table in a corner, and Russell sat down on the damask upholstered chair with a sigh of relief.

“I should take a cushion with me these days. Sitting on wood has become a trial for me. Will you have something to drink? It's my treat, because I shall be able then to set the rules.”

“As you wish. I'll have a whisky.” Hoping to loosen Russell's tongue . . .

Russell nodded, gave the order for two, and looked around. “I don't know half these people. Before the war, I could have put a name to most of them.”

“In London often, then, were you?”

“I was young, unmarried, just down from Cambridge. Full of myself. Full of the future. In love. Essex was dull, boring. London was busy, exciting. If I even thought about it, life seemed to stretch ahead in an endless golden haze, and I expected to be happy forever. Or at least, looking back on 1914, that's how I recall it now. It may not have been such a blissfully happy time, but it does no harm to think so. Were you in London then?”

“I was. I seem to remember it in the same way. Were you in the war?”

“Oh, yes, rushing to sign up before it was over, chafing at the bit, afraid the Kaiser would fold before I'd learned how to fight him properly. Writing letters home from training filled with patriotism and an eagerness to kill a people I'd never met. Well, I did know a few Germans at Cambridge. Nice enough chaps, I didn't picture them when I was hot to shoot the Hun. They weren't the sort to bayonet Belgian babies and rape Belgian women. My cousin was fond of one of them, in fact, but the man was called home shortly before hostilities were declared, and we don't know if he survived the fighting or not.”

“If you were in the war, how is it that you were in Essex to commit murder?”

“Yes, that's a bit confusing, isn't it? I was sent to London with dispatches. The house had been closed up, but I went down to have a look at it. Fowler was there, we quarreled. Opportunity presented itself, and temptation did the rest. There was a temporary airfield nearby. Zeppelin watch and night flights. The only risk was that if the body was discovered, one of the new chaps would be blamed for what happened. But apparently I was lucky. No one stumbled over him.”

“Were you married when you went to war?”

“Ah, too many questions.”

Rutledge's whisky came. Still probing, he said, “I decided not to marry the girl I thought I was in love with. And a good thing—I think she loved the uniform more than she loved the man. The marriage wouldn't have lasted.” And he was reminded again of Meredith Channing, whose marriage had lasted, on the cold ashes of duty.

Russell studied Rutledge for a moment over the rim of his glass. “Did it turn out well, your war?”

“Not at all well.”

“Yes, it seldom does, I expect. I found that killing people wasn't to my liking after all. But I did my duty to my men and to my country. I was damned glad when it was over, all the same.”

“Did being a soldier make it any easier, killing your cousin?”

There was a moment's hesitation. “The policeman again. Do you never leave him at home? It must be a bloody nuisance at dinner parties, wondering what subtle undercurrent of meaning there might be when someone asks you to pass the salt.”

Rutledge laughed.

“What made you decide to join the police? Why not become a lawyer, instead, if you were hell-bent on punishing evildoers?”

“My father was a solicitor. I considered his profession, and then decided against it.”

The waiter brought their lamb, and Russell inspected it. “I'm hungry enough to chew the table. But swallowing is another matter.” He sopped up a little of the sauce with a corner of bread and tasted it. “Ah yes. I remember why I always liked this so much.”

They spoke of other things during the meal, and Rutledge waited until they had finished their pudding before asking, “Why did you decide to come to the Yard in person, rather than to write a letter that would be opened after your death?” He had once known a murderer who did just that.

“The policeman is back, is he? We could have been great friends, save for him. All right, I suppose you deserve the answer to one question. It seemed rather cowardly to tell someone after the fact. I suppose I had a religious upbringing of sorts and realized that to confess was not enough. To admit wrongdoing and to show contrition while I was alive had more meaning somehow.”

“And do you feel better, for having unburdened your soul?”

Russell frowned. “Do you know, I thought I would. I've kept my secret for a very long time, or so it seemed to me. Screwing up the courage to come to the Yard while I could still manage the effort was a test of my intent. My strength of character, as it were. But it wasn't quite—as I'd expected.”

“Would you have been happier if I'd clapped you in irons and taken you to trial? Would hanging make a difference?”

“I had rather not hang, although it would shorten a lingering death. And perhaps I felt, after a fashion, that my crime was not as horrific as it had seemed at the time. That's the war speaking, of course. When one has killed thousands—well, hundreds, although it sometimes seemed like thousands—what's one more life taken? But do you know, it does make a difference. I think it matters because I had a choice, you see. I could have
killed him. And yet I did. And so I have come to you to confess and set the record straight. Only,” he added, frowning at the remnants of his pudding, “it hasn't been set straight, has it? Are you quite certain that you must know more about
I killed him?”

“It will have to come out. If there is an inquiry. You'll be questioned. And if you fail to answer those questions satisfactorily, then we will go in search of the answers ourselves. It will not be pleasant.”

“I hadn't expected it to be pleasant,” Russell told him. “I had just not anticipated that it would be so very personal. Or public. Least of all, that anyone else would have to be involved. With any luck, I shall be dead before it reaches that stage. Tell the policeman to mind his own business until then. I've no doubt you'll not let this matter drop, but once I'm not there to answer your questions, you won't be able to do any harm.” He signaled the waiter, and then said to Rutledge, “I'm very tired. It's one of the curses of my condition. I shan't be able to see you out.”

“Is there anything that I can do? Help you to your room?”

“Thank you, no. I can still manage that.”

Rutledge rose and held out his hand. “If you change your mind at any point, you know where to find me.”

“Yes, I do. Thank you, Inspector.”

Rutledge turned to walk away, and Russell said, “Actually—there is one thing you might do for me.”

Facing Russell again, Rutledge asked, “What is it?”

“Pray for my soul. It might help. A little.”

otoring back to the Yard, Rutledge considered Wyatt Russell. If he'd been telling the truth, that he'd come to confess a murder that was weighing on his soul, why had he been so reluctant to tell the whole truth, and not just a part of it?

Was someone else involved?

And that was very likely the answer. But then why not simply continue to live with the secret, and die without confessing it? When Russell learned he couldn't have it both ways, he had retreated from that confession.

Was that someone else a partner in the crime? Or the reason for it?

As he got out of his motorcar at the Yard, he was examining a map of Essex in his head. North of the Thames, north of Kent on the other side of that river, it was threaded with marshes, the coastline a fringe of inlets and a maze of tidal rivers that isolated the inhabitants in a world little changed with the passage of time. Until the war, the people of that part of Essex had known little about the rest of their county, much less their country, content with their own ways, in no need of modern conveniences or interference in a life that contented them.

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