Front page murder

By Peter Bartram

Author Editor Journalist

It always started with the same ritual.
  Percy Despart opened the drawer in the small desk by the side of his artist’s easel and took out his Swiss penknife. He held it for a moment and enjoyed the solid weight as it rested in his hand.
  Then he pulled out the large blade and ran his finger ever so gently down the cutting edge. It was sharp but not keen enough for what he had in mind.
  For Despart was planning an assassination.
  He stood up from the stool on which he’d perched and crossed the room to a workbench. His whetstone was in the centre, always ready for use.
  Despart looked closely at the penknife’s large blade. It had a pronounced curve in the centre where he’d repeatedly sharpened it. Briefly, he wondered whether he should invest in a new knife, but dismissed the idea. He’d used this knife since the day he’d first rented his studio on Brighton seafront. It was as much a valued part of the place as his easel, his palette and his tubes of oil paint.
  Besides, all the other attachments on the knife were in perfect condition. Well, perhaps the bottle opener was a little worn. But the device for taking stones out of horses’ hooves had never been used. Pity. He’d have liked to have been the Samaritan that came to the aid of a distressed donkey. But donkey rides had disappeared from Brighton beach years ago.
  With a skill which came from long practice, he ran the blade smoothly along the whetstone. It made a pleasing humming sound. He could tell when the blade was sharp enough because the hum rose half an octave and then faded.
  He raised the blade to his lips and blew gently on it.
He crossed back to his desk and surveyed his rack of pencils. Years ago, he’d found an attractively weathered piece of driftwood on the beach. It must have floated in the sea for years. It was hard to say what wood. Possibly mahogany. Perhaps the jetsam from a shipwreck long ago. But he’d taken a fancy to its shape and its texture. He’d carried it back to his studio and fashioned it into a pencil holder. That’s when the Swiss penknife’s smaller blade had come in useful. And the little wood saw. And the marlinspike.
  Now the pencil holder sat beside his drawing board with nineteen pencils standing proudly in a row, like guardsmen on parade. The pencils were graded from left to right – hard to soft. 9H hardest to the left. 9B softest to the right. The trusty standard HB in the centre.
  Starting with the softest, he pressed his thumb gently against their points to test their sharpness. Most were perfect. But he used the large blade of the Swiss penknife to put an extra point on the 7B, 4B and 3B. He finished by pressing his thumb a little harder than usual on the 9H. He winced as the stiletto point drew a tiny drop of blood. He sucked his thumb to remove it.
He took a moment to glance out of the window. The Esplanade which ran alongside the beach was deserted.   A cold January night was closing in. A few lazy snowflakes shone like floating nightlights as they drifted through the illuminations along the promenade.   Despart drew the curtains to shut out the night and turned to his drawing board.
  On the wall behind the board, he’d pinned up the ninety-nine comic picture postcards he’d drawn in earlier years. He surveyed them with pride. Perhaps they’d not sold as well as those by Donald McGill.   Perhaps the critics didn’t fawn over them as they did McGill’s. But McGill had died last year, in 1962. If the world of comic seaside postcards needed a new star, Despart didn’t see why he shouldn’t pick up McGill’s crown. But even if he couldn’t win McGill’s fame, he knew he could achieve something else.
  Despart turned his attention back to his drawing board.
  Now he was ready to draw his one hundredth comic postcard.
  And this one, he’d decided, would be his most devastating assassination yet.
  A character assassination.
  His weapon would be his pencils.
  Despart positioned a sheet of paper on his drawing board, selected a pencil and went to work. With a few deft strokes he sketched the outlines of a courtroom – the magistrate’s bench, the lawyers’ table, the dock in the background. He chose another pencil and drew the outline of a young woman with a voluptuous figure – bulging breasts, rounded buttocks. A lawyer. Dressed in wig and gown. Her wig was askew. She was flustered because her papers had fallen under the table. She had bent so far over to look for them her tight skirt had ridden up her legs to reveal her underwear. Despart chose a pencil with a harder lead to sketch in her lacy knickers.
  Then he switched back to his original pencil to draw the other character in the scene. The magistrate. Despart’s hand flew over the paper as it sketched the bald head, the pointy nose, the gawping eyes, the gaping mouth. The magistrate was leering at the barrister’s behind. Despart enjoyed adding the final touches. A bead of sweat to the magistrate’s brow. A dribble of saliva at the side of his mouth.
  Despart sat back and admired his work. His lips twitched into a smile. He’d portrayed the cartoon magistrate as a repulsive lecher leering at the lady lawyer’s underwear. But recognisable as the real-life beak he’d come to hate. The magistrate would come to regret the five pound fine he’d imposed on Despart for being drunk and disorderly. When this postcard went on sale, it would be the magistrate’s reputation that looked like the trash left behind by holidaymakers on the seafront after a hot summer’s day.
  And now he just needed to add the caption for the drawing.
  Says the knicker-revealing barrister: “Have you seen my briefs, your honour?”
  Replies the lecherous magistrate: “Cor! Wouldn’t mind taking them down in evidence.”
  Despart shifted his Anglepoise lamp so that it shone more strongly on the sketch.
  A gust of wind rattled the window.
  Despart pulled the curtain to one side and looked out. The snow was falling more heavily now. It was time to leave. It would be cold walking up Edward Street to his flat. But he’d stop off for a glass or two of something warming at The Hangman’s Noose.
  He turned and gasped.
  A figure had appeared silently in the doorway. He hadn’t heard the usual creak on the stair. Or the rattle as the rickety old latch on the door had opened.
  The figure frightened him because he couldn’t tell whether it was a man or a woman. It was dressed in a long cloak with a large hood which threw the figure’s face into deep shadow. The figure reminded him of a picture he’d once seen of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in Charles Dickens’s novel A Christmas Carol.   The picture had showed a sinister shrouded figure with a black void for a face.
  “Who are you?” Despart’s voice quavered. “What are you?”
  At least this ghost was real flesh and blood. The floorboards creaked as it moved towards him.
  Silent. Purposeful.
  “Keep away from me.” Despart’s voice rose in a shriek.
  A stool toppled over as he scrambled away from his drawing board. He grabbed for his penknife. Fumbled as he pulled out the long blade. The sharp blade. Brought to an edge only minutes ago on his whetstone.
He lunged and thrust the knife viciously at the figure.
But the ghost evaded his attack. It glided to one side and seized a pencil from the rack. The pencil from the extreme left-hand side. The 9H with the hardest sharpest point.
  The ghost raised its arm. It grasped the pencil like a dagger. Despart rushed forward with another desperate thrust of the penknife. But the ghost sidestepped and the knife whistled through air.
  The ghost’s arm plunged in a blur of movement. The pencil flashed in the light. Despart shrieked with pain as the pencil punctured the skin in the soft part of his neck above the collar bone.
  He heard a faint “pop” as the 9H’s stiletto point ruptured his windpipe. Warm sticky blood welled in his throat.
  Despart stumbled, fell to one knee. His eyes begged for mercy. He looked up at the ghost. But all he could see was a black shadow where the ghost’s face should be.
  And then the figure turned. Its cloak swirled around it as it retreated through the door. The ghost had disappeared before Despart, gasping helplessly for air, had fallen forward onto his face.
  The last sound Despart heard was the air rushing from his lungs. Like the discordant wheeze of bagpipes when the piper has finished playing and the bag deflates.
  For Percy Despart there would be no Christmases yet to come.
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