Did he go or was he pushed?

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The Independent Online
Today - a complete murder mystery.

"See that tribute to Harold Wilson the other night?" The question floated up into the air of the club smoking room, hovered for a moment then began to dissipate. It had been aimed by one of the only two inhabitants of the room, at the other one.

The man who asked the question had been a member of the club for 20 years, and was therefore somewhat junior to the other, who had been there since about 1963. The older man was called Wigby Fane, and he thought he recognised the other member but couldn't be sure.

"I did see the tribute to Harold Wilson," he said drily, "but I didn't see it the other night."

"So when did you see it?"

"About two years ago."

"About ... but it hadn't been televised before, surely?"

"I didn't see it on TV."

"I saw it in a studio at the BBC. They asked me for my comments."

More silence.

"It's part of my job," said Wigby Fane. "I am, or was, a journalist. When I got too old to rush after politicians shouting 'Any comment?' I started dealing with dead politicians."

"Obituaries?" said the first man.

"Precisely. Then I got too old for obituaries. So I went into the tribute business."

"Tribute business?"

"TV tribute. Whenever a great man dies, they roll out a tribute to him. Ditto a great woman. That tribute has been prepared years before. Often by me."

"Does it pay well?"

"Pardon?"

Wigby Fane was slightly shocked by that remark. Usually, when he told people what he did, they wanted to know who was next for the tribute treatment. Had he done the Queen? Was Edward Heath all lined up for a good tribute? Either that, or they wanted to know how they chose a subject for a tribute. If Olivier got one, did Gielgud? If the Queen Mum had one lined up, was there one for Princess Margaret as well?

But nobody had ever asked him about money before.

"Well, it's an odd thing, but there is no precedent for making a TV programme one year which isn't due to be shown for many years to come. For instance, if we had made a tribute to Harold Macmillan in 1980, should we be paid at 1980 rates, or at the rate payable the year the programme went out? And then, of course, tributes seldom get screened more than once, so there's no repeat fee."

"Couldn't the lapse between the making of the tribute and the death of the subject be geared into it?"

"Well, that's how they used to do it, funnily enough. They used to pay you half the fee when the tribute was made, and half, allowing for inflation, when the bloke kicked the bucket. Sometimes that was nice because you would have some old buffer pass away that you hadn't remembered doing a tribute for, and you'd suddenly get a fat cheque through the post. But it was sometimes annoying, when you depended on someone dying who wouldn't! I remember ..."

Wigby Fane seemed lost in his memories.

"Yes?" prompted the other man.

"Well, there was a politician called Lord Ulversdale. You wouldn't remember him now, but he was a big wheel in the 1950s, before he got the peerage. At a time when I really needed the money, I prepared a TV tribute to him, and got paid half the fee. It occurred to me that if only Lord Ulversdale passed away peacefully straightaway, I would be quids in, so ..."

He paused, then went on.

"Nobody liked him. He lived all by himself, as he had scared off all his intimates. I went to see him one day."

"And killed him?"

"Not quite as simple as that," said Fane. "But during my research I had uncovered one or two dreadful secrets in his past, and as he had a delicate heart condition, I thought the revelations might finish him off."

"And did they?"

"Put it this way," said Fane, "I got paid the second half of the tribute fee soon after."

"So that was how it was done," said the other man. "We always wondered about you."

"We?" said Fane.

"The police," said the other man. "I am retired now, but I used to be head of the Metropolitan Police. I was on the Lord Ulversdale case. I am arresting you for the murder of Lord Ulversdale."

"You can't do that," said Wigby Fane. "We finished work on your tribute six months ago. We can't open it up again."

We have filmed four different endings to this story, but we haven't left room for any of them. Sorry about that. Some other time, perhaps.

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