Who Knows? by Tony Billinghurst

Eric Miller, struggling financially, becomes curious about a missing person case and gets embroiled in a layered mystery; by Tony Billinghurst.

The company's chairman rose from his desk and straightened up with difficulty. Without thinking, Eric Miller looked surprised. The chairman noticed.

"The inner you is ageless, Mr Miller, age cannot weary it, but the outer you falls apart at an alarming rate. Take my advice, don't get old, it's not to be recommended." He smiled and handed Eric a cheque. "Thank you; I hope we don't meet again - at least not here."

"You're welcome. Is there a London & Counties Bank near here?"

"Right on the High Street, on the corner."

Eric left the Art Deco office block and hurried down the High Street. As a Security Consultant, he'd had years of low-key relationships with clients. When companies had internal security problems, he was their knight in white armour; when he found the culprit, he was shunned - it was the way of things. He ignored the crossing and dodged through the traffic. Work was scarce and money tight; he needed to pay the cheque in before he exceeded his overdraft limit.

As Eric approached the bank, he passed a charity shop; a poster in its window caught his attention. It read: 'Do you know this man?' The man in question was 40-something, had a haggard face and sad, staring eyes. He looked very dead. The door was open; Eric took a poster from the pile on a shelf, went to the bank, got a bus to the station and caught the 16.45 train home. The carriage was mostly empty and the journey was familiar. Eric unlocked the tray table in front of him, took the poster from his pocket and propped it against the seatback. The face wasn't that of a down and out wino, it was refined and intelligent and as Eric studied it, he couldn't help muttering aloud the question that was racing around in his mind: "Why did you die alone?" He read on:

Male, age 40 - 45, height 5'11", body badly decomposed, found in a Beechwood on the outskirts of Cottsgrove, Wiltshire. No apparent cause of death, teeth show dental work. All labels removed from clothing. Possessed no I/D. Identifying marks: part tattoo on upper right shoulder, possibly depicting the tip of a bird's wing. The face is based on facial reconstruction.

  • Black leather belt
  • Black trainers, worn
  • Baseball cap, light blue shirt, underwear, trousers grey, navy gilet
  • Raincoat, navy blue

  • Rucksack
  • Wind-up torch
  • Small Sony radio
  • Toothbrush
  • Mug & plate, plastic
  • Combo set, knife, fork, spoon
  • Empty plastic bottles, 3
  • Roll of sheet plastic, plastic carrier bags, 3
  • Fire sparker
  • Sunglasses

"Ok," he continued, "there's something professional about you; most rough sleepers hang around town centres, you were in a remote wood; you wore a peaked cap, sunglasses and no ID; why were you hiding?" When Eric got home, he gave the poster to Sue, his wife.

"What do you make of that, love? There's something about him; something I can't put my finger on." After dinner, when they were having coffee, Sue read the poster.

"He is strange... seems well prepared though, wonder if he was in the army?" Eric put his coffee mug down.

"That's it! Then why hasn't he been identified?"

Sue came and sat beside him on the sofa. She put her hand on his arm. "It's not your phobia of you dying alone again, is it?"


She handed the poster back. "If it worries you, why don't you call the police; have a chat, their number's on the poster."

The following day, as Eric didn't have any appointments, he phoned the police and was told they'd made the usual enquiries, advertised, checked the man's DNA, arranged a post mortem, checked UK and Interpol's missing persons databases, followed up the 23 names suggested by members of the public, no two of which agreed, and as they were satisfied he died of natural causes, handed the case to the Missing Persons Unit.

"Is that it then?" Eric demanded, a little brusquely. The officer replied in a resigned tone.

"Sir, we have 1,000 unidentified bodies on file and thousands of missing persons a year to deal with. Our resources are limited, we do what we can. Why don't you call the Missing Person's Unit? They're based in the National Crime Agency in London."

Eric logged onto the Missing Persons online records, but it didn't provide anything new except the case reference number. After endless phone calls to the National Crime Agency, he got to the right department.

"Case reference Please?... Your name is?... Did you know the deceased?... What is your interest?... Say again - you're suggesting the deceased was ex-military? Just a moment please." There was a silence. "I've read the notes. That has been investigated, the result was inconclusive, but probably not. Sorry... we don't allow visitors, not even to look at a tattoo photo; we haven't enough staff. I suppose I could send you a PDF of it - it's in the public domain, so I don't see why not. I'll just confirm that." There was muttering. "That'll be alright, Sir, what's your email address? Please let us know if you discover anything so we can update our records." A few hours later, Eric was studying the image. The tattoo didn't seem military, but he called his friend, Andy who was a militaria dealer.

"Greetings, Andy - Eric."

"Good Heavens, I thought you were dead."

"I love you too Andy, Look, you're ex-SAS. I've emailed you a pic of a tattoo, right upper arm, male Caucasian, 40-45, found dead, no ID, maybe ex-military. Could you take a shufty and tell me what you think?" Andy agreed and four hours later he called back.

"Get anywhere, Andy?

"Maybe. Meet me for a jar and I'll tell you." Eric met Andy at the White Lion at 9pm.

"I get a similar vibe as you - our man has a military feel. Look at this." He showed Eric a black and white image of a winged dog tattoo. The top of the right wing feathers were identical.

"Where'd you find that?"

"A reference book of tats."

"But the MPU said they couldn't make a military connection."

"They wouldn't without his Service Number, but this tat could still have a military connection."

"How?" Andy lent forward.

"SAS pay isn't great unless you're an officer, but there's good money to be made working for private security contractors."

"What, you mean as a mercenary?" Andy drank half his pint of Coke.

"Of course. The UK often gets involved in foreign squabbles, usually in ex-colonies. Our military is sent in but have their hands tied by what they can do. Bash the wrong heads together and you've got an international incident on your hands with the media screaming blue murder."

"I can believe it."

"Used to cost the country a fortune, so these days, the UK sends a token show of force for while then backs out and offers the host Gov use of private security companies. They're mostly staffed by ex-special forces. They can do what it takes; I gave it a go for a while. Tell you, being a mercenary's liberating for a soldier. No square bashing, the only rules are look out for your oppo, get the job done and don't get caught. If you do step on someone's toes, the host Gov is usually happy to look the other way. It's great if it doesn't mess with your head."

"If it doesn't do what?"

"Yea, you train till you're hard as nails, or so you think, then you still get post-traumatic stress - a lot of soldiers suffer from it but it's heightened in special forces. You live in an extreme, adrenalin-soaked world. One day you're in the jungle having a firefight, the next you're at home walking the dog. Years of constant stress can screw your mind up - it did mine and I wasn't alone. I still get hallucinations and flashbacks. After big ops, we'd get back to base and go on marathon drinking sessions to unwind. Trouble is, after a while, I couldn't stop drinking. Messed up my life. Had to join AA."

"Wondered why you ordered Coke; anyway, what's that got to do with our man?"

"He might have been a mercenary and the black dog tat could be his squad emblem. He might have run into the same problems I did. I wasn't unique by any means; a lot get depression. He might not have been running from someone, he might have been running from himself."

"Would many have the black dog tat?"

"Probably not, my squad usually had about six."

"Could he have been a regular?"

"Possible, but doubt it." Andy finished his Coke and stood to go. "If you're interested, try an advert in Soldier Mag for any Black Dog oppos from say 1990 to 2010 and see what surfaces?"

Eric ran the advert but didn't receive any replies, then phoned Andy. "Any more ideas?"

"Yea, try a clairvoyant." Andy could always be counted on to be helpful.

Three days later, Eric was sitting in the office he'd converted from his garage. His desk was covered with maxed out credit card bills and overdrawn bank statements. There was a small sofa with a pile of Professional Security magazines on a coffee table by the door. He was gazing out of the window when the doorbell rang and a thick set man with a shaven head entered.

"Mr Miller?"

"Yes." The man handed Eric his card.

"The name's Browne. I work for Webston Collection Services." Eric swept the papers into his desk drawer. "We're retained by a major UK bank." Eric pointed to the sofa. "Our client had a customer who absconded owing a large sum. Subsequently, the customer was pronounced missing, presumed dead by the High Court."


"Mr Miller, debt doesn't die when you do and our client suspects their customer's death was fraudulent."


"There's some evidence he was alive after the High Court pronounced him dead."

"Why are you telling me? I'm not a Private Investigator."

"I'm aware of that, but there is a possibility that the man we seek is the one who interests you, but we haven't been able to prove it."

Eric leant back in his chair. "Strange world, isn't it? But, Mr Browne, even bailiffs can't extract money from a corpse, so what concern is that to me?"

"They can from its estate. Lenders take a serious view of fraud. If they accept it lightly, it makes them more vulnerable. My client adopts a robust attitude to such matters. May I ask you, what is your interest in the dead man from Cottsgrove?"

"Curiosity to know why someone could die alone and not be claimed by anyone." Browne thought for a moment.

"The police nor the MPU have got far... What are your professional fees, Mr Miller?" Eric got up and handed Browne his brochure.

"The fees schedule's on page three."

Browne speed read. "May I keep this?" Eric nodded. Browne gave Eric a straight look. "I think you know more than you're saying. What would you say if I retained you to prove if the Cottsgrove man is James Gareth Denson? If you can provide evidence the High Court will accept, my client can proceed against his estate for fraud and will be happy to pay you £2000. If someone else proves it first, or the evidence is rejected, you get nothing." Eric smiled.

"Verbal contract with no witnesses? I do your work then get nothing - I don't think so."

"In your place, I'd say something similar. If you agree, the office will send you a legal contract - have your solicitor check it out."

"That's different - let me see it." Browne got up, nodded to Eric, then left. Before Browne came in, Eric was searching for a needle in a haystack; now he could work backwards and get paid for it. He checked Webston Collection Services on the internet. They were a major provider of debt services to the banking and corporate sectors. Eric poured a large scotch to celebrate. First thing the day after next, he received an emailed contract; the terms were as Browne said. He signed it.

Late the following morning, Eric was making his third coffee when his office doorbell rang. He opened the door to a tall, slim man with ebony black hair. He looked mid European, Italian maybe.

"Mr Miller? Marcus Fabbri."

"What can I do for you, Mr Fabbri?" Fabbri fidgeted with his briefcase; it was cheap brown plastic.

"I was hoping to have a word with you on a rather delicate matter - is it convenient?" Eric pointed to the sofa. "I am informed you have shown interest in a body found in woods near Cottsgrove."

"Informed by whom?"

"Someone in the MPU." Eric leant back in his chair and ran his hands through his hair.

"Which is it then, you've come to warn me off or buy me off?"

"Oh, nothing like that, I assure you. Actually, I've come to ask you a favour." Eric groaned.

"Go on," he said with as much resignation as he could muster.

"I work for a small society called Evanesco..." Eric started to type the name into his search bar. "Oh..." Fabbri said, pointing at him, "you won't find us on the web... least not that one." Eric looked at Fabbri with raised eyebrows.

"Where then?"

"Ah... the dark web..."

"Mr Fabbri, if that's your name?"

"It is."

"I'm a busy man, please get to the point."

"I've come to ask you for an indulgence. You see, our society... by the way, you're not recording this, are you?" Eric shook his head. He was undecided whether to be intrigued or exasperated. "Is dedicated to helping people disappear..."

"What - like Murder Incorporated?"

"Oh no, nothing like that - definitely not. You see, some people get their lives into a dreadful mess. They get into unfortunate relationships, marry in haste, gamble, get hopelessly in debt; you know the sort of thing. They're often unable to sort themselves out. Now, although we encourage clients to try to fix their problems and offer help where we can, sometimes, it's just better to start again. Then, we offer a fresh start, provide a blank sheet, we're their reset button...we help make sure their past stays in the past."

"You mean, you help them run away?"

"Oh, no, we encourage our clients to start again, never to run away, that always ends in disaster." He smiled at Eric as if he was about to tell him a joke. "We live on a ball; run for long enough and you'll end where you started." Eric didn't smile. "Running away leads to disaster... and unmarked graves." Fabbri was serious about that. Eric was just going to speak, but Fabbri interrupted him.

"There's no law against disappearing, least not for an adult. Unfortunately, to completely vanish leaving no trace and to fully restart requires a certain amount of... how shall we say? Legal dexterity."

"You mean you break the law," Fabbri replied in a quiet voice.

"Your words, Mr Miller... not mine."

Eric sensed Fabbri was a sharper cookie than he appeared, and changed the subject. "Surely, everyone and their roots are from somewhere else; isn't that running away?"

"Indeed, humanity is migratory, as you say. We're all ultimately from somewhere else, but going somewhere for a purpose is different from running from somewhere aimlessly."

"What's that got to do with the man from Cottsgrove then?"

Fabbri looked to see if the door was closed. "Well... one can never be 100% about these things, but he might have been one of our early clients." He quickly went on, "Since then we've made several improvements."

"What's the problem, walk out and change your name. What else is needed?" Fabbri laughed as though he was indulging a child.

"A lot; it takes special expertise - our expertise - and careful planning. You need to get your affairs in order, settle and close all utility accounts, council tax, loans, mobile phone. You need to buy a PAYG burner phone, preferably second hand, pay for it in cash, get rid of your possessions, not on eBay, use car boot sales. Don't use credit cards, close them, use cash. Change your appearance. Quit all social media - delete everything; change your name by deed poll. Cut ties with everyone you know - the lot - family included; and when you leave, use public transport. Book into a B&B somewhere busy like London; don't go to the countryside; hide in crowds. Oh, and do it all without anyone noticing."

Eric was surprised. "Point taken. So, what went wrong when you started?"

"We now know it takes a special type of person to be able to do all this. These days we screen people carefully. We decline the majority of enquiries. We think Cottsgrove man might have left his finances unresolved. Other people might forget you, a creditor never will. Cottsgrove man started running and kept changing his name. Also, we now insist clients always carry their new identity with them. If they haven't changed their name by deed poll, we have specialists who can create something for them." He smiled at Eric. "Saves the situation we're in now."

"But the guy's dead now, what's the problem?"

"His estranged wife wanted to remarry and after the usual seven years wait, got a High Court Certificate of Presumed Death."

Eric realised the problem. "If Cottsgrove was her husband, she married bigamously."

"Possibly, it depends on the timing of events. Shortly before he left, they took out a large mortgage and life assurance policies on each other and bought a big house. If she knew he was still alive and got a Certificate of Presumed Death, she committed fraud, but on the other hand, it might all be above board and legitimate. It's not for me to say. She and her new husband now have a baby girl."

"So, what is it you want Mr Fabbri?"

"I've come to ask you not to name Cottsgrove man." Eric stood, leant over and rapped on his desk with his finger.

"Have you? It might have escaped your notice, Mr Fabbri, but Cottsgrove's ex-wife might be guilty of fraud and bigamy in which case you and I could go to jail for conspiracy." Fabbri didn't reply. "And, I'll have you know, I've been retained by a debt collector to establish who Cottsgrove man is."

Fabbri looked down at the floor. "I'm quite sure she's perfectly innocent."

"Oh, are you? I don't think you care whether she's guilty or not. You just want to protect your reputation; but if you're that concerned, you must have a name in mind. We can save ourselves a lot of grief if we compare the names we both have."

Fabbri slowly shook his head.

"No, Mr Miller, that's not going to happen, it would break client confidentiality."

"So, you want to prevent a bank who lent in good faith from seeking recompense from his estate, stop the police from investigating a fraud, protect your reputation, and what's more, you want us to break the law and me to throw a fee away. Not asking much are you? What can you put in the pot then?"

"Unfortunately, we're not in a position to pay you any compensation, Mr Miller, but I would ask you to consider this. When someone disappears, others are affected as well, often perfectly innocent parties; it can take them years to recover, if they ever do. In this case, I feel a certain responsibility and am inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. Why destroy their lives? If Cottsgrove man as you call him was our client, he disappeared and changed his name by deed poll, was pronounced dead, started running and unofficially changed his name once, maybe twice more. The old him no longer exists but it will be the old him you'll try to name. You're unlikely to find his subsequent unofficial names - so, what name will you give him, if you're able? If things are left as they are, this man will be buried and his ex-wife will be able to live her life in peace. If you name him, can you live with the damage you'll do?" Fabbri got up and locked his briefcase. As he turned, he said in parting: "Mr Miller, please don't name him."

After Fabbri left, Eric took his thoughts for a walk through the fields by the river and when he returned, phoned the council. He was put on hold then asked to choose between umpteen options, none of which were what he wanted, then was sent around endless departments until eventually, he got through to the Bereavement Services Officer who told him Cottsgrove man's funeral was on Tuesday at 9am in the City's East Cemetery. He told Sue but didn't tell her he'd been retained by Webston Collection.

"You're not still wasting time on him, are you?" Eric didn't reply. "Have you found his name?"

"I'm getting close."

"What are you going to do?"

"His funeral's on Tuesday; he'll probably be buried alone."

"He died alone; so, what does it matter?"

"Dying alone's bad enough, being buried alone's worse. Think I'll go - give me some sort of closure." She shrugged her shoulder.

Eric arrived at the Cemetery at 8.40am. There was only one newly dug grave, it had a pile of earth along one side. A Volvo digger was parked nearby. No one else was around. After a few minutes, an old Honda Civic drove up and a man wearing a badly fitting suit got out, looked at his watch and walked over. Eric met him.

"9 o'clock - man from Cottsgrove?" Eric asked.

"Did you know him?"

Eric shook his head. "Did you?"

"No, I'm from the Council. When there's no one to attend, somebody from the department comes out of respect."

"Gruesome job."

"No, I rather enjoy it - gets me out of the office - only time my phone doesn't ring."

"Do you get many of these then?"

The man from the Council looked surprised at the question. "Heavens, yes, Councils handle thousands a year and growing. Blooming expensive too. Costs £1,800 a time - big charge on the Rates - and that's with no extras, no gravestone, no flowers, common grave shared with others." As they were speaking, a lady vicar approached them. The Council man whispered to Eric. "Does this out of the goodness of her heart, bless her; not paid for it you know." The Council man greeted her. "Morning Vicar!"

"Morning John." She acknowledged Eric. After a few minutes, a hearse arrived and stopped nearby. Another car followed and parked somewhere out of sight. Four pallbearers dressed in identical black overcoats got out, removed a cheap coffin from the hearse, carried it to the grave, stood two on each long side then at a signal from the senior one, gently lowered it into the grave. They bowed; then the vicar stepped forward and read from a small book.

"Almighty God..." Eric saw a movement by the trees and looked over. A man was watching them. "We now commit our dearly beloved brother to the ground..." She made the sign of a cross. "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust..." The man by the trees looked familiar, but Eric couldn't place where he'd seen him before, he was standing in a shadow. The Vicar closed her book and nodded to the pallbearers who bowed again and left.

"Thank you, Vicar."

"Thank you for coming, John." As she turned to go, a man in a yellow high vis vest started the digger and drove towards them to fill the grave in. The Vicar faced Eric.

"A tragic end of a life. Did you know him?"


"Well, at least he's buried amongst people like him."

"He's what?"

The man from the Council intervened. "Of course - it's a common grave." He waved his hand over the whole cemetery. "How many headstones do you think are here?"

Eric shrugged his shoulders. "No idea, few thousand, maybe."

"Could be - but there's over 100,000 buried in this cemetery, well over - most don't have grave markers. Does it really matter if he hasn't either?" The vicar spoke to Eric.

"Why did you come?"

"I don't like the thought of someone being buried alone."

"Nor me."

"Yes, tragic, but if we'd walked in his shoes, would any of us have acted differently?"

"Indeed, there but for The Grace of God... Nice to meet you - hope we meet again. Mr...?"

"Miller; but hopefully, not here."

Eric took his keys from his pocket. The man from the shadows joined them. It was Browne. The vicar did her coat up.

"I wonder who he was," she said to Eric. Browne faced Eric as well.

"Yes, who was he, Mr Miller?"

Eric opened his car and turned to the vicar. "In the end, I doubt if even he knew." Then answered Browne. "Who knows? He could be any one of us."


  1. I always enjoy stories where the "average" person becomes involved in a mystery almost by accident, step by step. This, certainly was that. This was quite compelling and I think would work as a longer piece with perhaps more detail around all the fascinating characters.

  2. Hello David,
    Thank you for your kind comment.I had Eric Miller first appear in 'Cocktails at Sunset' published on 6.1.21 in Ariel Chart Mag. in Australia, then in 'A Circle of Seagulls' published 5.4.21 in Freedom Fiction Mag In India. Although each story stands alone,they follow the theme you have rightly spotted. Glad you enjoyed it.


  3. I enjoyed this story immensely. A touch of noir about it... the impoverished financial investigator rushing to the bank and becoming obsessed with a death which doesn’t really concern him.
    If I was to criticise at all, I found it difficult, some of the time, to follow who was speaking.
    I’m intrigued to hear that Eric Miller has appeared in different publications all around the world. I think he should be gathered together in an anthology.

    1. Hello Rosemary,
      Thank you for your kind comments, they're very useful. Lately, I've been trying to remove as many speech identifiers as possible and clearly have overdone it. Will be more careful in future. Glad you enjoyed it.

  4. Interesting story. The mystery remains a mystery. Not all events are defined. The twist adds a bit of freshness. Nice.

    1. Hello Glen,
      Glad you enjoyed it. It is losely based on an actual event - some folk live strange lives, thankfully.