Not Safe After Dark
Individual stories first published in different form as: ‘Summer Rain’ © Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, New York, December 1994. An Inspector Banks story; ‘Fan Mail’ © Cold Blood II, ed. Peter Sellers (Mosaic Press: Oakville, Canada, 1989); ‘Innocence’ © Cold Blood III, ed. Peter Sellers (Mosaic Press: Oakville, Canada, 1990); ‘Murder in Utopia’ © Crime Through Time III, ed. Sharan Newman (Berkeley, New York, July 2000); ‘Not Safe After Dark’ © Criminal Shorts, ed. Howard Engel and Eric Wright (Macmillan: Toronto, Canada, 1992); ‘Just My Luck’ © Bouchercon XXII Souvenir Programme Book, Toronto, 1992; ‘Anna Said…’ © Cold Blood IV, ed. Peter Sellers (Mosaic Press: Oakville, Canada, 1992). An Inspector Banks story; ‘Missing in Action’ © Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, New York, November 2000; ‘Memory Lane’ © Blue Lightning, ed. John Harvey, Slow Dancer Press (UK), 1998; ‘Carrion’ © No Alibi, ed. Maxim Jakubowski (Ringpull: Manchester, 1995); ‘April in Paris’ © Love and Death, ed. Carolyn Hart (Berkeley, New York), February 2001; ‘The Good Partner’ © Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, New York, March 1994. An Inspector Banks story; ‘Some Land in Florida’ © Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, New York, Christmas issue, 1996; ‘The Wrong Hands’ © Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, New York, April 1998; ‘The Two Ladies of Rose Cottage’ © Malice Domestic 6, ed. Anne Perry (New York: Pocket Books, 1997); ‘Lawn Sale’ © Cold Blood V, ed. Peter Sellers and John North (Mosaic Press: Oakville, Canada, 1994); ‘Gone to the Dawgs’ © The Mighty Johns, ed. Otto Penzler (New Millennium Press, Beverly Hills, CA), summer 2002; ‘In Flanders Fields’ © 1998, first published in Not Safe After Dark and Other Stories, by Peter Robinson, Crippen & Landru (Virginia), October 1998; ‘The Duke’s Wife’ © Much Ado About Murder, ed. Anne Perry (Berkeley, New York, December 2002).
‘Going Back’ first published 2004; © Eastvale Enterprise Inc.
I remember once talking to a famous crime writer about getting a short story out of my home being burgled, and she replied, ‘I get a short story out of everything.’ That certainly put me in my place. It also serves as a useful opening to this introduction because some writers I know find that short stories come easily, whereas I don’t.
I think this is partly because I have become so used to thinking in terms of the novel, with the broad canvas it offers, that it’s hard to work in miniature. I carry a novel around in my head for a long time – at least a year, waking and sleeping – and this gives me time to get under the skin of the characters and the story. Also, plotting is probably the most difficult part of writing for me, and being asked to write a short story, which so often depends on a plot twist, a clever diversion or a surprising revelation, guarantees that I’ll get the laundry done and probably the ironing, too.
That said, there is nevertheless a great deal of satisfaction to be had from writing short stories. Partly, of course, it’s the quick pay-off. A short story is, by definition, short. Consequently, you get that wonderful rush of having finished something far more quickly than you do with a novel.
But it isn’t only the instant gratification that makes short stories so attractive to me, it’s also the new possibilities they offer. When you work primarily as a series writer, as I do, most of your time goes into the creation of that series. That, of course, is as it should be: I wouldn’t be writing the Inspector Banks books if I didn’t want to. But there’s always the temptation to try something different, and to risk a week or so doing this is a lot easier than to risk a year or more on a project that might easily meet with rejection.
Short stories also offer a wonderful opportunity for the series writer to spread his or her wings and fly to new, exotic places, to meet different people and to try out different techniques. The Inspector Banks series is set, for the most part, in Yorkshire, but these stories range from Toronto to Paris, from Florida to California. The Banks books are third-person narratives, while many of the stories are first-person. Banks is a policeman, but you’ll find very few policemen between these covers. A number of the stories, such as ‘Murder in Utopia’ and ‘Missing in Action’, are set in different periods of history.
While short stories come from the same seeds as novels, usually they come as ideas that can only be developed into short stories. ‘Innocence’ was one exception to this rule. After writing the story, I couldn’t let go and went on to write an entire novel from Reed’s point of view, expanding the events of the story, but my publishers turned it down. I put it aside for a while, then thought that perhaps if Banks was there it might work better. Thus, Reed became Owen and ‘Innocence’ (1990) became Innocent Graves (1996). Both the short story and the novel won Arthur Ellis awards in Canada.
A sense of place has always been important in my work and is no less so here. In Florida one December I witnessed a Christmas singalong around the swimming pool, Santa in his usual outfit leading the crowd on electric piano. Only this took place in twenty-seven-degree heat and they were singing ‘White Christmas’, something I think they don’t usually have down there. Needless to say, the absurdity of the scene was not lost on me, and in ‘Some Land in Florida’ Santa ends up in the pool with his electric piano thrown after him – still plugged in!
The first historical story I wrote, ‘The Two Ladies of Rose Cottage’, was inspired by both a place and by my interest in Thomas Hardy. I once paid a visit to the house where he was born in Bockhampton, Dorset, and stood in the room where he was cast aside as dead by the doctor who delivered him, only to be revived by a quick-thinking nurse. As I looked out of his upstairs window on much the same view he often enjoyed as he wrote his early books, this short story of murder and deceit ranging over more than a hundred years began to form in my mind, and Hardy himself even makes a brief appearance in it.
Other stories have their origins in such diverse sources as an unusual piece of information (‘Carrion’), fragments of dreams (‘Fan Mail’), stories recounted by others (‘The Wrong Hands’ and ‘Memory Lane’) and research for other works. I doubt that I would ever have written ‘In Flanders Fields’ or ‘Missing in Action’, for example, if I hadn’t spent so much time researching the Second World War for In a Dry Season.
Sometimes, as in ‘Gone to the Dawgs’ and ‘The Duke’s Wife’, I was asked for a story on a specific topic – in these cases, American football and Shakespeare respectively. But no matter how much or how little is given, or demanded, there is always a lot to change and more to add, all subjected to the constant ‘What if?’ of the writer’s imagination.
While I did mention earlier that most of the stories here represent a break from Inspector Banks, there are three Banks short stories in the collection. In a way, they were the hardest for me to write because I’m so used to giving Banks plenty of space. There’s little room for significant character or plot development in a short story, or for the creation of multiple points of view. Still, it was impossible to resist the temptation to try, especially to have Banks attempt to solve the mystery of a man who claims to have been murdered in a previous lifetime, as happens in ‘Summer Rain’. You’ll have to judge the results for yourself.
Finally, the Inspector Banks novella ‘Going Back’ is a special case and has never been published before. I wrote it early in 1999, so it came between In a Dry Season and Cold Is the Grave. At that point I didn’t know that I was going to send Banks home to deal with his old school friend’s disappearance in The Summer that Never Was (2003) and I wanted to show him interacting with his family and responding to the place where he grew up. In manuscript, it reached 106 pages, too long for any of the magazines or anthologies that regularly published my stories, and too short for separate book publication. And so it sat there gathering dust until I came to write The Summer that Never Was, when I incorporated parts of the novella into the novel – mostly details about the street Banks grew up on, his relationship with his parents, the music he listened to and the books he read as an adolescent.
When I came to revise ‘Going Back’ for this collection, I had to shift it chronologically, so that it now falls between The Summer that Never Was and Playing with Fire. I also had to try to avoid too much repetition of details I had cannibalized for the novel without spoiling the original conception. It was a difficult balancing act, but I hope you enjoy the final result, along with the rest of the stories in this collection.
AN INSPECTOR BANKS STORY
‘And exactly how many times have you died, Mr Singer?’
‘Fourteen. That’s fourteen I’ve managed to uncover. They say that each human being has lived about twenty incarnations. But it’s the last one I’m telling you about. See, I died by violence. I was murdered.’
Detective Constable Susan Gay made a note on the yellow pad in front of her. When she looked down, she noticed that she had doodled an intricate pattern of curves and loops, a bit like Spaghetti Junction, during the few minutes she had been talking to Jerry Singer.
She tried to keep the scepticism out of her voice. ‘Ah-hah. And when was this, sir?’
‘Nineteen sixty-six. July. That makes it exactly thirty-two years ago this week.’
Jerry Singer had given his age as thirty-one, which meant that he had been murdered a year before he was born.
‘How do you know it was nineteen sixty-six?’ Susan asked.
Singer leaned forward. He was a remarkably intense young man, Susan noticed, thin to the point of emaciation, with glittering green eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses. He looked as if the lightest breeze would blow him away. His fine red hair had a gossamer quality that reminded Susan of spiders’ webs. He wore jeans, a red T-shirt and a grey anorak, its shoulders darkened by the rain. Though he said he came from San Diego, California, Susan could detect no trace of suntan.
‘It’s like this,’ he began. ‘There’s no fixed period between incarnations, but my channeller told me-’
‘Channeller?’ Susan interrupted.
‘She’s a kind of spokesperson for the spirit world.’
‘Not quite.’ Singer managed a brief smile. ‘But close enough. More of a mediator, really.’
‘Oh, I see,’ said Susan, who didn’t. ‘Go on.’
‘Well, she told me there would be a period of about a year between my previous incarnation and my present one.’
‘How did she know?’
‘She just knows. It varies from one soul to another. Some need a lot of time to digest what they’ve learned and make plans for the next incarnation. Some souls just can’t wait to return to another body.’ He shrugged. ‘After some lifetimes, you might simply just get tired and need a long rest.’
After some mornings, too, Susan thought. ‘OK,’ she said, ‘let’s move on. Is this your first visit to Yorkshire?’
‘It’s my first trip to England, period. I’ve just qualified in dentistry, and I thought I’d give myself a treat before I settled down to the daily grind.’
Susan winced. Was that a pun? Singer wasn’t smiling. A New Age dentist, now there was an interesting combination, she thought. Can I read your tarot cards for you while I drill? Perhaps you might like to take a little astral journey to Neptune while I’m doing your root canal? She forced herself to concentrate on what Singer was saying.
‘So, you see,’ he went on, ‘as I’ve never been here before, it must be real, mustn’t it?’
Susan realized she had missed something. ‘What?’
‘Well, it was all so familiar, the landscape, everything. And it’s not only the déjà vu I had. There was the dream, too. We haven’t even approached this in hypnotic regression yet, so-’
Susan held up her hand. ‘Hang on a minute. You’re losing me. What was so familiar?’
‘Oh, I thought I’d made that clear.’
‘Not to me.’
‘The place. Where I was murdered. It was near here. In Swainsdale.’
Banks was sitting in his office with his feet on the desk and a buff folder open on his lap when Susan Gay popped her head around the door. The top button of his white shirt was undone and his tie hung askew.
That morning, he was supposed to be working on the monthly crime figures, but instead, through the half-open window, he listened to the summer rain as it harmonized with Michael Nyman’s soundtrack from The Piano, playing quietly on his portable cassette. His eyes were closed and he was daydreaming of waves washing in and out on a beach of pure white sand. The ocean and sky were the brightest blue he could imagine, and tall palm trees dotted the landscape. The pastel village that straddled the steep hillside looked like a cubist collage.
‘Sorry to bother you, sir,’ Susan said, ‘but it looks like we’ve got a right one here.’
Banks opened his eyes and rubbed them. He felt as if he were coming back from a very long way. ‘It’s all right,’ he said. ‘I was getting a bit bored with the crime statistics, anyway.’ He tossed the folder onto his desk and linked his hands behind his head. ‘Well, what is it?’
Susan entered the office. ‘It’s sort of hard to explain, sir.’
Susan told him about Jerry Singer. As he listened, Banks’s blue eyes sparkled with amusement and interest. When Susan had finished, he thought for a moment, then sat up and turned off the music. ‘Why not?’ he said. ‘It’s been a slow week. Let’s live dangerously. Bring him in.’ He fastened his top button and straightened his tie.
A few moments later, Susan returned with Jerry Singer in tow. Singer looked nervously around the office and took the seat opposite Banks. The two exchanged introductions, then Banks leaned back and lit a cigarette. He loved the mingled smells of smoke and summer rain.
‘Perhaps you’d better start at the beginning,’ he said.
‘Well,’ said Singer, turning his nose up at the smoke, ‘I’ve been involved in regressing to past lives for a few years now, partly through hypnosis. It’s been a fascinating journey, and I’ve discovered a great deal about myself.’ He sat forward and rested his hands on the desk. His fingers were short and tapered. ‘For example, I was a merchant’s wife in Venice in the fifteenth century. I had seven children and died giving birth to the eighth. I was only twenty-nine. In my next incarnation, I was an actor in a troupe of Elizabethan players, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. I remember playing Bardolph in Henry V in 1599. After that, I-’
‘I get the picture,’ said Banks. ‘I don’t mean to be rude, Mr Singer, but maybe we can skip to the twentieth century?’
Singer paused and frowned at Banks. ‘Sorry. Well, as I was telling Detective Constable Gay here, it’s the least clear one so far. I was a hippie. At least, I think I was. I had long hair, wore a caftan, bell-bottom jeans. And I had this incredible sense of déjà vu when I was driving through Swainsdale yesterday afternoon.’
‘It was just before Fortford. I was coming from Helmthorpe, where I’m staying. There’s a small hill by the river with a few trees on it, all bent by the wind. Maybe you know it?’
Banks nodded. He knew the place. The hill was, in fact, a drumlin, a kind of hump-backed mound of detritus left by the retreating ice age. Six trees grew on it, and they had all bent slightly to the south-east after years of strong north-westerly winds. The drumlin was about two miles west of Fortford.
‘Is that all?’ Banks asked.
‘Yes.’ Banks leaned forward and rested his elbows on the desk. ‘You know there are plenty of explanations for déjà vu, don’t you, Mr Singer? Perhaps you’ve seen a place very similar before and only remembered it when you passed the drumlin?’
Singer shook his head. ‘I understand your doubts,’ he said, ‘and I can’t offer concrete proof, but the feeling is unmistakable. I have been there before, in a previous life. I’m certain of it. And that’s not all. There’s the dream.’
‘Yes. I’ve had it several times. The same one. It’s raining, like today, and I’m passing through a landscape very similar to what I’ve seen in Swainsdale. I arrive at a very old stone house. There are people and their voices are raised, maybe in anger or laughter, I can’t tell. But I start to feel tense and claustrophobic. There’s a baby crying somewhere and it won’t stop. I climb up some creaky stairs. When I get to the top, I find a door and open it. Then I feel that panicky sensation of endlessly falling, and I usually wake up frightened.’
Banks thought for a moment. ‘That’s all very interesting,’ he said, ‘but have you considered that you might have come to the wrong place? We’re not usually in the business of interpreting dreams and visions.’
Singer stood his ground. ‘This is real,’ he said. ‘A crime has been committed. Against me.’ He poked himself in the chest with his thumb. ‘The crime of murder. The least you can do is do me the courtesy of checking your records.’ His odd blend of naivety and intensity charged the air.
Banks stared at him, then looked at Susan, whose face showed sceptical interest. Never having been one to shy away from what killed the cat, Banks let his curiosity get the better of him yet again. ‘All right,’ he said, standing up. ‘We’ll look into it. Where did you say you were staying?’
Banks turned right by the whitewashed sixteenth-century Rose and Crown in Fortford, and stopped just after he had crossed the small stone bridge over the River Swain.
The rain was still falling, obscuring the higher green dale sides and their latticework of drystone walls. Lyndgarth, a cluster of limestone cottages and a church huddled around a small village green, looked like an Impressionist painting. The rain-darkened ruins of Devraulx Abbey, just up the hill to his left, poked through the trees like a setting for Camelot.
Banks rolled his window down and listened to the rain slapping against leaves and dancing on the river’s surface. To the west he could see the drumlin that Jerry Singer had felt so strongly about.
Today it looked ghostly in the rain, and it was easy to imagine the place as some ancient barrow where the spirits of Bronze Age men lingered. But it wasn’t a barrow; it was a drumlin created by glacial deposits. And Jerry Singer hadn’t been a Bronze Age man in his previous lifetime; he had been a sixties hippie, or so he believed.
Leaving the window down, Banks drove through Lyndgarth and parked at the end of Gristhorpe’s rutted driveway, in front of the squat limestone farmhouse. Inside, he found Gristhorpe staring gloomily out of the back window at a pile of stones and a half-completed dry-stone wall. The superintendent, he knew, had taken a week’s holiday and hoped to work on the wall, which went nowhere and closed in nothing. But he hadn’t bargained for the summer rain, which had been falling nonstop for the past two days.
He poured Banks a cup of tea so strong you could stand a spoon up in it, offered some scones, and they sat in Gristhorpe’s study. A paperback copy of Trollope’s The Vicar of Bullhampton lay on a small table beside a worn and scuffed brown leather armchair.
‘Do you believe in reincarnation?’ Banks asked.
Gristhorpe considered the question a moment. ‘No. Why?’
Banks told him about Jerry Singer, then said, ‘I wanted your opinion. Besides, you were here then, weren’t you?’
Gristhorpe’s bushy eyebrows knit in a frown. ‘Nineteen sixty-six?’
‘I was here, but that’s over thirty years ago, Alan. My memory’s not what it used to be. Besides, what makes you think there’s anything in this other than some New Age fantasy?’
‘I don’t know that there is,’ Banks answered, at a loss how to explain his interest, even to the broad-minded Gristhorpe. Boredom, partly, and the oddness of Singer’s claim, the certainty the man seemed to feel about it. But how could he tell his superintendent that he had so little to do he was opening investigations into the supernatural? ‘There was a sort of innocence about him,’ he said. ‘And he seemed so sincere about it, so intense.’
‘ “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” W. B. Yeats,’ Gristhorpe replied.
‘Perhaps. Anyway, I’ve arranged to talk to Jenny Fuller about it later today.’ Jenny was a psychologist who had worked with the Eastvale police before.
‘Good idea,’ said Gristhorpe. ‘All right, then, just for argument’s sake, let’s examine his claim objectively. He’s convinced he was a hippie murdered in Swainsdale in summer, nineteen sixty-six, right?’
‘And he thinks this because he believes in reincarnation, he had a déjà vu and he’s had a recurring dream?’
‘Now,’ Gristhorpe went on, ‘leaving aside the question of whether you or I believe in reincarnation, or, indeed, whether there is such a thing – a philosophical speculation we could hardly settle over tea and scones, anyway – he doesn’t give us a hell of a lot to go on, does he?’
‘That’s the problem. I thought you might remember something.’
Gristhorpe sighed and shifted in his chair. The scuffed leather creaked. ‘In nineteen sixty-six, I was a thirty-year-old detective sergeant in a backwoods division. In fact, we were nothing but a subdivision then, and I was the senior detective. Most of the time I investigated burglaries, the occasional outbreak of sheep stealing, market-stall owners fencing stolen goods.’ He sipped some tea. ‘We had one or two murders – really interesting ones I’ll tell you about someday – but not a lot. What I’m saying, Alan, is that no matter how poor my memory is, I’d remember a murdered hippie.’
‘And nothing fits the bill?’
‘Nothing. I’m not saying we didn’t have a few hippies around, but none of them got murdered. I think your Mr Singer must be mistaken.’
Banks put his mug down on the table and stood up to leave. ‘Better get back to the crime statistics, then,’ he said.
Gristhorpe smiled. ‘So that’s why you’re so interested in this cock and bull story? Can’t say I blame you. Sorry I can’t help. Wait a minute, though,’ he added as they walked to the door. ‘There was old Bert Atherton’s lad. I suppose that was around the time you’re talking about, give or take a year or two.’
Banks paused at the door. ‘Atherton?’
‘Aye. Owns a farm between Lyndgarth and Helmthorpe. Or did. He’s dead now. I only mention it because Atherton’s son, Joseph, was something of a hippie.’
‘Fell down the stairs and broke his neck. Family never got over it. As I said, old man Atherton died a couple of years back, but his missis is still around.’
‘You’d no reason to suspect anything?’
Gristhorpe shook his head. ‘None at all. The Athertons were a decent, hard-working family. Apparently the lad was visiting them on his way to Scotland to join some commune or other. He fell down the stairs. It’s a pretty isolated spot, and it was too late when the ambulance arrived, especially as they had to drive a mile down country lanes to the nearest telephone box. They were really devastated. He was their only child.’
‘What made him fall?’
‘He wasn’t pushed, if that’s what you’re thinking. There was no stair carpet and the steps were a bit slippery. According to his dad, Joseph was walking around without his slippers on and he slipped in his stockinged feet.’
‘And you’ve no reason to doubt him?’
‘No. I did have one small suspicion at the time, though.’
‘According to the post-mortem, Joseph Atherton was a heroin addict, though he didn’t have any traces of the drug in his system at the time of his death. I thought he might have been smoking marijuana or something up in his room. That might have made him a bit unsteady on his feet.’
‘Did you search the place?’
Gristhorpe snorted. ‘Nay, Alan. There was no sense bringing more grief on his parents. What would we do if we found something, charge them with possession?’
‘I see your point.’ Banks opened the door and put up his collar against the rain. ‘I might dig up the file anyway,’ he called, running over to the car. ‘Enjoy the rest of your week off.’
Gristhorpe’s curse was lost in the sound of the engine starting up and the finale of Mussorgsky’s ‘Great Gate of Kiev’ on Classic FM, blasting out from the radio, which Banks had forgotten to switch off.
In addition to the cells and the charge room, the lower floor of Eastvale Divisional Headquarters housed old files and records. The dank room was lit by a single bare light bulb and packed with dusty files. So far, Banks had checked nineteen sixty-five and sixty-six but found nothing on the Atherton business.
Give or take a couple of years, Gristhorpe had said. Without much hope, Banks reached for nineteen sixty-four. That was a bit too early for hippies, he thought, especially in the far reaches of rural North Yorkshire.
In nineteen sixty-four, he remembered, the Beatles were still recording ballads like ‘I’ll Follow the Sun’ and old rockers like ‘Long Tall Sally’. John hadn’t met Yoko, and there wasn’t a sitar within earshot. The Rolling Stones were doing ‘Not Fade Away’ and ‘It’s All Over Now’, the Kinks had a huge hit with ‘You Really Got Me’, and the charts were full of Dusty Springfield, Peter and Gordon, the Dave Clark Five and Herman’s Hermits.
So nineteen sixty-four was a write-off as far as dead hippies were concerned. Banks looked anyway. Maybe Joseph Atherton had been way ahead of his time. Or perhaps Jerry Singer’s channeller had been wrong about the time between incarnations. Why was this whole charade taking on such an aura of unreality?
Banks’s stomach rumbled. Apart from that scone at Gristhorpe’s, he hadn’t eaten since breakfast, he realized. He put the file aside. Though there hardly seemed any point looking further ahead than nineteen sixty-six, he did so out of curiosity. Just as he was feeling success slip away, he came across it: Joseph Atherton. Coroner’s verdict: accidental death. There was only one problem: it had happened in 1969.
According to the Athertons’ statement, their son wrote to say he was coming to see them en route to Scotland. He said he was on his way to join some sort of commune and arrived at Eastvale station on the London train at three forty-five in the afternoon, 11 July 1969. By ten o’clock that night he was dead. He didn’t have transport of his own, so his father had met him at the station in the Land Rover and driven him back to the farm.
Banks picked up a sheet of lined writing paper, yellowed around the edges. A separate sheet described it as an anonymous note received at the Eastvale police station about a week after the coroner’s verdict. All it said, in block capitals, was, ‘Ask Atherton about the red Volkswagen.’
Next came a brief interview report, in which a PC Wythers said he had questioned the Athertons about the car and they said they didn’t know what he was talking about. That was that.
Banks supposed it was remotely possible that whoever was in the red Volkswagen had killed Joseph Atherton. But why would his parents lie? According to the statement, they spent the evening together at the farm eating dinner, catching up on family news, then Joseph went up to his room to unpack and came down in his stockinged feet. Maybe he’d been smoking marijuana, as Gristhorpe suggested. Anyway, he slipped at the top of the stairs and broke his neck. It was tragic, but hardly what Banks was looking for.
He heard a sound at the door and looked up to see Susan Gay.
‘Found anything, sir?’ she asked.
‘Maybe,’ said Banks. ‘One or two loose ends. But I haven’t a clue what it all means, if anything. I’m beginning to wish I’d never seen Mr Jerry Singer.’
Susan smiled. ‘Do you know, sir,’ she said, ‘he almost had me believing him.’
Banks put the file aside. ‘Did he? I suppose it always pays to keep an open mind,’ he said. ‘That’s why we’re going to visit Mrs Atherton.’
The Atherton farm was every bit as isolated as Gristhorpe had said, and the relentless rain had muddied the lane. At one point Banks thought they would have to get out and push, but on the third try the wheels caught and the car lurched forward.
The farmyard looked neglected: bedraggled weeds poked through the mud; part of the barn roof had collapsed; and the wheels and tines of the old hayrake had rusted.
Mrs Atherton answered their knock almost immediately. Banks had phoned ahead so their arrival wouldn’t frighten her. After all, a woman living alone in such a wild place couldn’t be too careful.
She led them into the large kitchen and put the kettle on the Aga. The stone-walled room looked clean and tidy enough, but Banks noted an underlying smell, like old greens and meat rotting under the sink.
Mrs Atherton carried the aura of the sickroom about with her. Her complexion was as grey as her sparse hair; her eyes were dull yellow with milky blue irises; and the skin below them looked dark as a bruise. As she made the tea, she moved slowly, as if measuring the energy required for each step. How on earth, Banks wondered, did she manage up here all by herself? Yorkshire grit was legendary, and often as close to foolhardiness as anything else, he thought.
She put the teapot on the table. ‘We’ll just let it mash a minute,’ she said. ‘Now, what is it you want to talk to me about?’
Banks didn’t know how to begin. He had no intention of telling Mrs Atherton about Jerry Singer’s ‘previous lifetime’, or of interrogating her about her son’s death. Which didn’t leave him many options.
‘How are you managing?’ he asked first.
‘It must be hard, taking care of this place all by yourself?’
‘Nay, there’s not much to do these days. Jack Crocker keeps an eye on the sheep. I’ve nobbut got a few cows to milk.’
‘Nay, it’s not worth it any more, not with these battery farms. Anyway, seeing as you’re a copper, I don’t suppose you came to talk to me about the farming life, did you? Come on, spit it out, lad.’
Banks noticed Susan look down and smile. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I hate to bring up a painful subject, but it’s your son’s death we want to talk to you about.’
Mrs Atherton looked at Susan as if noticing her for the first time. A shadow crossed her face. Then she turned back to Banks. ‘Our Joseph?’ she said. ‘But he’s been dead nigh on thirty years.’
‘I know that,’ said Banks. ‘We won’t trouble you for long.’
‘There’s nowt else to add.’ She poured the tea, fussed with milk and sugar, and sat down again.
‘You said your son wrote and said he was coming?’
‘Did you keep the letter?’
‘The letter. I’ve not seen any mention of it anywhere. It’s not in the file.’
‘Well, it wouldn’t be, would it? We don’t leave scraps of paper cluttering up the place.’
‘So you threw it out?’
‘Aye. Bert or me.’ She looked at Susan again. ‘That was my husband, God rest his soul. Besides,’ she said, ‘how else would we know he was coming? We couldn’t afford a telephone back then.’
‘I know,’ said Banks. But nobody had asked at the railway station whether Bert Atherton actually had met his son there, and now it was too late. He sipped some tea; it tasted as if the teabag had been used before. ‘I don’t suppose you remember seeing a red Volkswagen in the area around that time, do you?’
‘No. They asked us that when it first happened. I didn’t know owt about it then, and I don’t know owt now.’
‘Was there anyone else in the house when the accident occurred?’
‘No, of course there weren’t. Do you think I wouldn’t have said if there were? Look, young man, what are you getting at? Do you have summat to tell me, summat I should know?’
Banks sighed and took another sip of weak tea. It didn’t wash away the taste of decay that permeated the kitchen. He signalled to Susan and stood up. ‘No,’ he said. ‘No, I’ve nothing new to tell you, Mrs Atherton. Just chasing will o’ the wisps, that’s all.’
‘Well, I’m sorry, but you’ll have to go chase ’em somewhere else, lad. I’ve got work to do.’
The Queen’s Arms was quiet late that afternoon. Rain had kept the tourists away, and at four o’clock most of the locals were still at work in the offices and shops around the market square. Banks ordered a pork pie, then he and Jenny Fuller took their drinks to an isolated corner table and settled down. The first long draught of Theakston’s bitter washed the archive dust and the taste of decay from Banks’s throat.
‘Well,’ said Jenny, raising her glass of lager in a toast. ‘To what do I owe the honour?’
She looked radiant, Banks thought: thick red hair tumbling over her shoulders, emerald green eyes full of humour and vitality, a fresh scent that cut through the atmosphere of stale smoke and made him think of childhood apple orchards. Though Banks was married, he and Jenny had once come very close to getting involved, and every now and then he felt a pang of regret for the road not taken.
‘Reincarnation,’ said Banks, clinking glasses.
Jenny raised her eyebrows. ‘You know I’ll drink to most things,’ she said, ‘but really, Alan, isn’t this going a bit far?’
Banks explained what had happened so far that day. By the time he had finished, the barman delivered his pork pie, along with a large pickled onion. As Jenny mulled over what he had said, he sliced the pie into quarters and shook a dollop of HP Sauce onto his plate to dip them in.
‘Fantasy,’ she said finally.
‘Would you care to elaborate?’
‘If you don’t believe in reincarnation, then there are an awful lot of strange phenomena you have to explain in more rational ways. Now, I’m no expert on parapsychology, but most people who claim to have lived past lifetimes generally become convinced through hypnosis, dreams and déjà vu experiences, like the ones you mentioned, or by spontaneous recall.’
‘Exactly what it sounds like. Remembering past lifetimes out of the blue. Children playing the piano without lessons, people suddenly speaking foreign languages, that kind of thing. Or any memory you have but can’t explain, something that seems to have come from beyond your experience.’
‘You mean if I’m walking down the street and I suddenly think of a Roman soldier and remember some sort of Latin phrase, then I’m recalling a previous lifetime?’
Jenny gave him a withering look. ‘Don’t be so silly, Alan. Of course I don’t think that. Some people might, though. People are limitlessly gullible, it seems to me, especially when it comes to life after death. No, what I mean is that this is the kind of thing believers try to put forward as proof of reincarnation.’
‘And how would a rational psychologist explain it?’
‘She might argue that what a person recalls under hypnosis, in dreams, or wherever, is simply a web of fantasy woven from things that person has already seen or heard and maybe forgotten.’
‘But he says he’s never been here before.’
‘There’s television, books, films.’
Banks finished his pork pie, took a swig of Theakston’s and lit a Silk Cut. ‘So you’re saying that maybe our Mr Singer has watched one too many episodes of All Creatures Great and Small?’
Jenny tossed back her hair and laughed, ‘It wouldn’t surprise me.’ She looked at her watch, then drained her glass. ‘Look, I’m sorry, but I must dash.’ And with that, she jumped up, pecked him on the cheek and left. Jenny was always dashing, it seemed. Sometimes he wondered where.
Banks thought over what she had said. It made sense. More sense than Singer’s reincarnation theory and more sense than suspecting Joseph Atherton’s parents of covering up their son’s murder.
But there remained the unsubstantiated story of the letter and the anonymous note about the red Volkswagen. If somebody else had driven Joseph Atherton to the farm, then his parents had been lying about the letter. Why? And who could it have been?
Two days later, sorting through his post, Banks found a letter addressed to him in longhand. It stood out like a sore thumb among the usual bundle of circulars and official communications. He spread it open on his desk in front of him and read.
Dear Mr Banks,
I’m not much of a one for letter writing so you must forgive me any mistakes. I didn’t get much schooling due to me being a sickly child but my father always told us it was important to read and write. Your visit last week upset me by raking up the past I’d rather forget. I don’t know what made you come and ask those questions but they made me think it is time to make my peace with God and tell the truth after all these years.
What we told the police was not true. Our Joseph didn’t write to say he was coming and Bert didn’t pick him up at the station. Joseph just turned up out of the blue one afternoon in that red car. I don’t know who told the police about the car but I think it might have been Len Grimond in the farm down the road because he had fallen out with Bert over paying for repairs to a wall.
Anyway, it wasn’t our Joseph’s car. There was an American lass with him called Annie and she was driving. They had a baby with them that they said was theirs. I suppose that made him our grandson but it was the first time we ever heard about him. Our Joseph hadn’t written or visited us for four years and we didn’t know if he was alive or dead. He was a bonny little lad about two or three with the most solemn look on his face.
Well it was plain from the start that something was wrong. We tried to behave like good loving parents and welcome them into our home but the girl was moody and she didn’t want to stay. The baby cried a lot and I don’t think he had been looked after properly, though it’s not my place to say. And Joseph was behaving very peculiar. His eyes looked all glassy with tiny pupils. We didn’t know what was the matter. I think from what he said that he just wanted money.
They wouldn’t eat much though I cooked a good roast for them, and Yorkshire puddings too, but our Joseph just picked at his food and the girl sat there all sulky holding the baby and wanting to go. She said she was a vegetarian. After we’d finished the dinner Joseph got very upset and said he had to go to the toilet. By then Bert was wondering what was going on and also a bit angry at how they treated our hospitality even if Joseph was our son.
Joseph was a long time in the toilet. Bert called up to him but he didn’t answer. The girl said something about leaving him alone and laughed, but it wasn’t a nice laugh. We thought something might be wrong with him so Bert went up and found Joseph with a piece of string tied around his arm heating something in a spoon with a match. It was one of our silver anniversary spoons he had taken from the kitchen without asking. We were just ignorant farmers and didn’t know what was happening in crime and drugs and everything like you do, Mr Banks, but we knew our Joseph was doing something bad.
Bert lost his temper and pulled Joseph out of the toilet. When they were at the top of the stairs, Joseph started swearing at his father, using such words I’ve never heard before and would blush to repeat. That’s when Bert lost his temper and hit him. On God’s honour, he didn’t mean to hurt him. Joseph was our only son and we loved him even though he was breaking my heart. But when Bert hit him Joseph fell down the stairs and when he got to the bottom his head was at such a funny angle I knew he must have broken his neck.
The girl started screaming then took the baby and ran outside and drove away. We have never seen her again or our grandson and don’t know what has become of him. There was such a silence like you have never heard when the sound of the car engine vanished in the distance and Joseph was laying at the bottom of the stairs all twisted and broken. We tried to feel his pulse and Bert even put a mirror to his mouth to see if his breath would mist it but there was nothing.
I know we should have told the truth and we have regretted it for all those years. We were always brought up to be decent honest folk respecting our parents and God and the law. Bert was ashamed that his son was a drug addict and didn’t want it in the papers. I didn’t want him to go to jail for what he had done because it was really an accident and it wasn’t fair. He was suffering more than enough anyway because he had killed his only son.
So I said we must throw away all the drugs and needle and things and take our Joseph’s shoes off and say he slipped coming down the stairs. We knew that the police would believe us because we were good people and we had no reason to lie. That was the hardest part. The laces got tied in knots and I broke my fingernails and in the end I was shaking so much I had to use the scissors.
And that is God’s honest truth, Mr Banks. I know we did wrong but Bert was never the same after. Not a day went by when he didn’t cry about what he’d done and I never saw him smile ever again. To this day we still do not know what has become of our grandson but whatever it is we hope he is healthy and happy and not as foolish as his father.
By the time you read this letter I’ll be gone to my resting place too. For two years now I have had cancer and no matter what operations they do it is eating me away. I have saved my tablets. Now that I have taken the weight off my conscience I can only hope that the good Lord sees fit to forgive me my sins and take me unto his bosom.
Banks put the letter aside and rubbed his left eye with the back of his hand. Outside, the rain was still falling, providing a gentle background for Finzi’s Clarinet Concerto on the portable cassette. Banks stared at the sheets of blue vellum covered in Betty Atherton’s crabbed hand, then he cursed, slammed his fist on the desk, went to the door and shouted for Susan Gay.
‘Her name is Catherine Anne Singer,’ said Susan the next afternoon. ‘And she was relieved to talk to me as soon as I told her we weren’t after her for leaving the scene of a crime. She comes from somewhere called Garden Grove, California. Like a lot of young Americans, she came over to “do” Europe in the sixties.’
The three of them – Banks, Susan and Jenny Fuller – sat over drinks at a dimpled, copper-topped table in the Queen’s Arms listening to the summer rain tap against the diamonds of coloured glass.
‘And she’s Jerry Singer’s mother?’ Banks asked.
Susan nodded. ‘Yes. I just asked him for her telephone number. I didn’t tell him why I wanted it.’
Banks nodded. ‘Good. Go on.’
‘Well, she ended up living in London. It was easy enough to get jobs that paid under the counter, places where nobody asked too many questions. Eventually, she hooked up with Joseph Atherton and they lived together in a bedsit in Notting Hill. Joseph fancied himself as a musician then-’
‘Who didn’t?’ said Banks. He remembered taking a few abortive guitar lessons himself. ‘Sorry. Go on.’
‘There’s not a lot to add, sir. She got pregnant, wouldn’t agree to an abortion, though apparently Joseph tried to persuade her. She named the child Jerry, after some guitarist Joseph liked called Jerry Garcia. Luckily for Jerry, Annie wasn’t on heroin. She drew the line at hash and LSD. Anyway, they were off to join some Buddhist commune in the wilds of Scotland when Joseph said they should drop in on his parents on the way and try to get some money. She didn’t like the idea, but she went along with it anyway.
‘Everything happened exactly as Mrs Atherton described it. Annie got scared and ran away. When she got back to London, she decided it was time to go home. She sold the car and took out all her savings from the bank, then she got the first flight she could and settled back in California. She went to university and ended up working as a marine biologist in San Diego. She never married, and she never mentioned her time in England, or that night at the Atherton farm, to Jerry. She told him his father had left them when Jerry was still a baby. He was only two and a half at the time of Atherton’s death, and as far as he was concerned he had spent his entire life in southern California.’
Banks drained his pint and looked at Jenny.
‘Cryptomnesia,’ she said.
‘Cryptomnesia. It means memories you’re not consciously aware of, a memory of an incident in your own life that you’ve forgotten. Jerry Singer was present when his grandfather knocked his father down the stairs, but as far as he was concerned consciously, he’d never been to Swainsdale before, so how could he remember it? When he got mixed up in the New Age scene, these memories he didn’t know he had started to seem like some sort of proof of reincarnation.’
Sometimes, Banks thought to himself, things are better left alone. The thought surprised him because it went against the grain of both his job and his innate curiosity. But what good had come from Jerry Singer presenting himself at the station three days ago? None at all. Perhaps the only blessing in the whole affair was that Betty Atherton had passed away peacefully, as she had intended, in her pill-induced sleep. Now she wouldn’t suffer any more in this world. And if there were a God, Banks thought, he surely couldn’t be such a bastard as to let her suffer in the next one, either.
‘Sorry, Susan, I was miles away.’
‘I asked who was going to tell him. You or me?’
‘I’ll do it,’ said Banks, with a sigh. ‘It’s no good trying to sit on it all now. But I need another pint first. My shout.’
As he stood up to go to the bar, the door opened and Jerry Singer walked in. He spotted them at once and walked over. He had that strange naive, intense look in his eyes. Banks instinctively reached for his cigarettes.
‘They told me you were here,’ Singer said awkwardly, pointing back through the door towards the Tudor-fronted police station across the street. ‘I’m leaving for home tomorrow and I was just wondering if you’d found anything out yet?’
The letter arrived one sunny Thursday morning in August, along with a Visa bill and a royalty statement. Dennis Quilley carried the mail out to the deck of his Beaches home, stopping by the kitchen on the way to pour himself a gin and tonic. He had already been writing for three hours straight and he felt he deserved a drink.
First he looked at the amount of the royalty cheque, then he put aside the Visa bill and picked up the letter carefully, as if he were a forensic expert investigating it for prints. Postmarked Toronto and dated four days earlier, it was addressed in a small, precise hand and looked as if it had been written with a fine-nibbed calligraphic pen. But the post code was different; that had been hurriedly scrawled in with a ballpoint. Whoever it was, Quilley thought, had probably got his name from the telephone directory and had then looked up the code in the post office just before mailing.
Pleased with his deductions, Quilley opened the letter. Written in the same neat and mannered hand as the address, it said:
Dear Mr Quilley,
Please forgive me for writing to you at home like this. I know you must be very busy, and it is inexcusable of me to intrude on your valuable time. Believe me, I would not do so if I could think of any other way.
I have been a great fan of your work for many years now. As a collector of mysteries, too, I also have first editions of all your books. From what I have read, I know you are a clever man and, I hope, just the man to help me with my problem.
For the past twenty years, my wife has been making my life a misery. I put up with her for the sake of the children, but now they have all gone to live their own lives. I have asked her for a divorce, but she just laughed in my face. I have decided, finally, that the only way out is to kill her and that is why I am seeking your advice.
You may think this is insane of me, especially saying it in a letter, but it is just a measure of my desperation. I would quite understand it if you went straight to the police, and I am sure they would find me and punish me. Believe me, I’ve thought about it. Even that would be preferable to the misery I must suffer day after day.
If you can find it in your heart to help a devoted fan in his hour of need, please meet me on the roof lounge of the Park Plaza Hotel on Wednesday, 19 August at two p.m. I have taken the afternoon off work and will wait longer if for any reason you are delayed. Don’t worry, I will recognize you easily from your photo on the dust jacket of your books.
Yours, in hope,
The letter slipped from Quilley’s hand. He couldn’t believe what he’d just read. He was a mystery writer – he specialized in devising ingenious murders – but for someone to assume that he did the same in real life was absurd. Could it be a practical joke?
He picked up the letter and read through it again. The man’s whining tone and clichéd style seemed sincere enough, and the more Quilley thought about it, the more certain he became that none of his friends was sick enough to play such a joke.
Assuming that it was real, then, what should he do? His impulse was to crumple up the letter and throw it away. But should he go to the police? No. That would be a waste of time. The real police were a terribly dull and literal-minded lot. They would probably think he was seeking publicity.
He found that he had screwed up the sheet of paper in his fist, and he was just about to toss it aside when he changed his mind. Wasn’t there another option? Go. Go and meet the man. Find out more about him. Find out if he was genuine. Surely there would be no obligation in that? All he had to do was turn up at the Park Plaza at the appointed time and see what happened.
Quilley’s life was fine – no troublesome woman to torment him, plenty of money (mostly from American sales), a beautiful lakeside cottage near Huntsville, a modicum of fame, the esteem of his peers – but it had been rather boring of late. Here was an opportunity for adventure of a kind. Besides, he might get a story idea out of the meeting. Why not go and see?
He finished his drink and smoothed the letter on his knee. He had to smile at that last bit. No doubt the man would recognize him from his book-jacket photo, but it was an old one and had been retouched in the first place. His cheeks had filled out a bit since then and his thinning hair had acquired a sprinkling of grey. Still, he thought, he was a handsome man for fifty: handsome, clever and successful.
Smiling, he picked up both letter and envelope and went back to the kitchen in search of matches. There must be no evidence.
Over the next few days Quilley hardly gave a thought to the mysterious letter. As usual in summer, he divided his time between writing in Toronto, where he found the city worked as a stimulus, and weekends at the cottage. There he walked in the woods, chatted to locals in the lodge, swam in the clear lake and idled around getting a tan. Evenings, he would open a bottle of Chardonnay, reread P. G. Wodehouse and listen to Bach. It was an ideal life: quiet, solitary, independent.
When Wednesday came, though, he drove downtown, parked in the multi-storey at Cumberland and Avenue Road, then walked to the Park Plaza. It was another hot day. The tourists were out in force across Bloor Street by the Royal Ontario Museum, many of them Americans from Buffalo, Rochester or Detroit: the men in loud-checked shirts photographing everything in sight, their wives in tight shorts looking tired and thirsty.
Quilley took the elevator up to the nineteenth floor and wandered through the bar, an olde-worlde place with deep armchairs and framed reproductions of old Colonial scenes on the walls. It was busier than usual, and even though the windows were open, the smoke bothered him. He walked out onto the roof lounge and scanned the faces. Within moments he noticed someone looking his way. The man paused for just a split second, perhaps to translate the dust-jacket photo into reality, then beckoned Quilley over with raised eyebrows and a twitch of the head.
The man rose to shake hands, then sat down again, glancing around to make sure nobody had paid the two of them undue attention. He was short and thin, with sandy hair and a pale grey complexion, as if he had just come out of hospital. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and had a habit of rolling his tongue around in his mouth when he wasn’t talking.
‘First of all, Mr Quilley,’ the man said, raising his glass, ‘may I say how honoured I am to meet you.’ He spoke with a pronounced English accent.
Quilley inclined his head. ‘I’m flattered, Mr… er…?’
‘Peplow, Frank Peplow.’
‘Yes… Mr Peplow. But I must admit I’m puzzled by your letter.’
A waiter in a burgundy jacket came over to take Quilley’s order. He asked for an Amstel.
Peplow paused until the waiter was out of earshot. ‘Puzzled?’
‘What I mean is,’ Quilley went on, struggling for the right words, ‘whether you were serious or not, whether you really do want to-’
Peplow leaned forward. Behind the lenses, his pale blue eyes looked sane enough. ‘I assure you, Mr Quilley, that I was, that I am entirely serious. That woman is ruining my life and I can’t allow it to go on any longer.’
Speaking about her brought little spots of red to his cheeks. Quilley held his hand up. ‘All right, I believe you. I suppose you realize I should have gone to the police?’
‘But you didn’t.’
‘I could have. They might be here, watching us.’
Peplow shook his head. ‘Mr Quilley, if you won’t help, I’d even welcome prison. Don’t think I haven’t realized that I might get caught, that no murder is perfect. All I want is a chance. It’s worth the risk.’
The waiter returned with Quilley’s drink and they both sat in silence until he had gone. Quilley was intrigued by this drab man sitting opposite him, a man who obviously didn’t even have the imagination to dream up his own murder plot. ‘What do you want from me?’ he asked.
‘I have no right to ask anything of you, I understand that,’ Peplow said. ‘I have absolutely nothing to offer in return. I’m not rich. I have no savings. I suppose all I want really is advice, encouragement.’
‘If I were to help,’ Quilley said, ‘if I were to help, then I’d do nothing more than offer advice. Is that clear?’
Peplow nodded. ‘Does that mean you will?’
‘If I can.’
And so Dennis Quilley found himself helping to plot the murder of a woman he’d never met with a man he didn’t even particularly like. Later, when he analysed his reasons for playing along, he realized that that was exactly what he had been doing – playing. It had been a game, a cerebral puzzle, just like thinking up a plot for a book, and he never, at first, gave a thought to real murder, real blood, real death.
Peplow took a handkerchief from his top pocket and wiped the thin film of sweat from his brow. ‘You don’t know how happy this makes me, Mr Quilley. At last I have a chance. My life hasn’t amounted to much and I don’t suppose it ever will. But at least I might find some peace and quiet in my final years. I’m not a well man.’ He placed one hand solemnly over his chest. ‘Ticker. Not fair, is it? I’ve never smoked, I hardly drink, and I’m only fifty-three. But the doctor has promised me a few years yet if I live right. All I want is to be left alone with my books and my garden.’
‘Tell me about your wife,’ Quilley prompted.
Peplow’s expression darkened. ‘She’s a cruel and selfish woman,’ he said. ‘And she’s messy, she never does anything around the place. Too busy watching those damn soap operas on television day and night. She cares about nothing but her own comfort, and she never overlooks an opportunity to nag me or taunt me. If I try to escape to my collection, she mocks me and calls me dull and boring. I’m not even safe from her in my garden. I realize I have no imagination, Mr Quilley, and perhaps even less courage, but even a man like me deserves some peace in his life, don’t you think?’
Quilley had to admit that the woman really did sound awful – worse than any he had known, and he had met some shrews in his time. He had never had much use for women, except for occasional sex in his younger days. Even that had become sordid, and now he stayed away from them as much as possible. He found, as he listened, that he could summon up remarkable sympathy for Peplow’s position.
‘What do you have in mind?’ he asked.
‘I don’t really know. That’s why I wrote to you. I was hoping you might be able to help with some ideas. Your books… you seem to know so much.’
‘In my books,’ Quilley said, ‘the murderer always gets caught.’
‘Well, yes,’ said Peplow, ‘of course. But that’s because the genre demands it, isn’t it? I mean, your Inspector Baldry is much smarter than any real policeman. I’m sure if you’d made him a criminal, he would always get away.’
There was no arguing with that, Quilley thought. ‘How do you want to do it?’ he asked. ‘A domestic accident? Electric shock, say? Gadget in the bathtub? She must have a hair curler or a dryer?’
Peplow shook his head, eyes tightly closed. ‘Oh no,’ he whispered, ‘I couldn’t. I couldn’t do anything like that. No more than I could bear the sight of her blood.’
‘How’s her health?’
‘Unfortunately,’ said Peplow, ‘she seems obscenely robust.’
‘How old is she?’
‘Any bad habits?’
‘Mr Quilley, my wife has nothing but bad habits. The only thing she won’t tolerate is drink, for some reason, and I don’t think she has other men – though that’s probably because nobody will have her.’
‘Does she smoke?’
‘Like a chimney.’
Quilley shuddered. ‘How long?’
‘Ever since she was a teenager, I think. Before I met her.’
‘Does she exercise?’
‘What about her weight, her diet?’
‘Well, you might not call her fat, but you’d be generous in saying she was full-figured. She eats too much junk food. I’ve always said that. And eggs. She loves bacon and eggs for breakfast. And she’s always stuffing herself with cream cakes and tarts.’
‘Hmmm,’ said Quilley, taking a sip of Amstel. ‘She sounds like a prime candidate for a heart attack.’
‘But it’s me who-’ Peplow stopped as comprehension dawned. ‘Yes, I see. You mean one could be induced?’
‘Quite. Do you think you could manage that?’
‘Well, I could if I didn’t have to be there to watch. But I don’t know how.’
‘I don’t know anything about poison.’
‘Never mind. Give me a few days to look into it. I’ll give you advice, remember, but that’s as far as it goes.’
Quilley smiled. ‘Good. Another beer?’
‘No, I’d better not. She’ll be able to smell this one on my breath and I’ll be in for it already. I’d better go.’
Quilley looked at his watch. Two-thirty. He could have done with another Amstel, but he didn’t want to stay there by himself. Besides, at three it would be time to meet his agent at the Four Seasons, and there he would have the opportunity to drink as much as he wanted. To pass the time, he could browse in Book City. ‘Fine,’ he said, ‘I’ll go down with you.’
Outside on the hot, busy street, they shook hands and agreed to meet in a week’s time on the back patio of the Madison Avenue Pub. It wouldn’t do to be seen together twice in the same place.
Quilley stood on the corner of Bloor and Avenue Road among the camera-clicking tourists and watched Peplow walk off towards the St George subway station. Now that their meeting was over and the spell was broken, he wondered again what the hell he was doing helping this pathetic little man. It certainly wasn’t altruism. Perhaps the challenge appealed to him; after all, people climb mountains just because they’re there.
And then there was Peplow’s mystery collection. There was just a chance that it might contain an item of great interest to Quilley and that Peplow might be grateful enough to part with it.
Wondering how to approach the subject at their next meeting, Quilley wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand and walked towards the bookshop.
Atropine, hyoscyamine, belladonna… Quilley flipped through Dreisbach’s Handbook of Poisoning one evening at the cottage. Poison seemed to have gone out of fashion these days, and he had only used it in one of his novels, about six years ago. That had been the old standby, cyanide, with its familiar smell of bitter almonds, which he had so often read about but never experienced. The small black handbook had sat on his shelf gathering dust ever since.
Writing a book, of course, one could generally skip over the problems of acquiring the stuff – give the killer a job as a pharmacist or in a hospital dispensary, for example. In real life, getting one’s hands on poison might prove more difficult.
So far, he had read through the sections on agricultural poisons, household hazards and medicinal poisons. The problem was that whatever Peplow used had to be easily available. Prescription drugs were out. Even if Peplow could persuade a doctor to give him barbiturates, for example, the prescription would be on record and any death in the household would be regarded as suspicious. Barbiturates wouldn’t do, anyway, and nor would such common products as paint thinner, insecticides and weed killers – they didn’t reproduce the symptoms of a heart attack.
Near the back of the book was a list of poisonous plants that shocked Quilley by its sheer length. He hadn’t known just how much deadliness there was lurking in fields, gardens and woods. Rhubarb leaves contained oxalic acid, for example, and caused nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. The bark, wood, leaves or seeds of the yew had a similar effect. Boxwood leaves and twigs caused convulsions; celandine could bring about a coma; hydrangeas contained cyanide; and laburnums brought on irregular pulse, delirium, twitching and unconsciousness. And so the list went on – lupins, mistletoe, sweet peas, rhododendron – a poisoner’s delight. Even the beautiful poinsettia, which brightened up so many Toronto homes each Christmas, could cause gastroenteritis. Most of these plants were easy to get hold of, and in many cases the active ingredients could be extracted simply by soaking or boiling in water.
It wasn’t long before Quilley found what he was looking for. Beside ‘Oleander’ the note read, ‘See digitalis, 374.’ And there it was, set out in detail. Digitalis occurred in all parts of the common foxglove, which grew on waste ground and woodland slopes, and flowered from June to September. Acute poisoning would bring about death from ventricular fibrillation. No doctor would consider an autopsy if Peplow’s wife appeared to die of a heart attack, given her habits, especially if Peplow fed her a few smaller doses first to establish the symptoms.
Quilley set aside the book. It was already dark outside, and the downpour that the humid, cloudy day had been promising had just begun. Rain slapped against the asphalt roof tiles, gurgled down the drainpipe and pattered on the leaves of the overhanging trees. In the background, it hissed as it fell on the lake. Distant flashes of lightning and deep rumblings of thunder warned of the coming storm.
Happy with his solitude and his cleverness, Quilley linked his hands behind his head and leaned back in the chair. Out back, he heard the rustling of a small animal making its way through the undergrowth – a raccoon, perhaps, or even a skunk. When he closed his eyes, he pictured all the trees, shrubs and wild flowers around the cottage and marvelled at the deadly potential so many of them contained.
The sun blazed down on the back patio of the Madison, a small garden protected from the wind by high fences. Quilley wore his sunglasses and nursed a pint of Conner’s Ale. The place was packed. Skilled and pretty waitresses came and went, trays laden with baskets of chicken wings and golden pints of lager.
The two of them sat out of the way at a white table in a corner by the metal fire escape. A striped parasol offered some protection, but the sun was still too hot and too bright. Peplow’s wife must have given him hell about drinking the last time because today he had ordered only a Coke.
‘It was easy,’ Quilley said. ‘You could have done it yourself. The only setback was that foxgloves don’t grow wild here like they do in England. But you’re a gardener; you grow them.’
Peplow shook his head and smiled. ‘It’s the gift of clever people like yourself to make difficult things seem easy. I’m not particularly resourceful, Mr Quilley. Believe me, I wouldn’t have known where to start. I had no idea that such a book existed, but you did because of your art. Even if I had known, I’d hardly have dared buy it or take it out of the library for fear that someone would remember. But you’ve had your copy for years. A simple tool of the trade. No, Mr Quilley, please don’t underestimate your contribution. I was a desperate man. Now you’ve given me a chance at freedom. If there’s anything at all I can do for you, please don’t hesitate to say. I’d consider it an honour.’
‘This collection of yours,’ Quilley said. ‘What does it consist of?’
‘British and Canadian crime fiction, mostly. I don’t like to boast, but it’s a very good collection. Try me. Go on, just mention a name.’
‘E. C. R. Lorac.’
‘About twenty of the Inspector MacDonalds. First editions, mint condition.’
‘Everything but Night’s Candles.’
Peplow raised his eyebrows. ‘Good Lord, that’s an obscure one. Do you know, you’re the first person I’ve come across who’s ever mentioned that.’
‘Do you have it?’
‘Oh, yes.’ Peplow smiled smugly. ‘X. J. Trotton, Signed in Blood, published 1942. It turned up in a pile of junk I bought at an auction some years ago. It’s rare, but not very valuable. Came out in Britain during the war and probably died an immediate death. It was his only book, as far as I can make out, and there is no biographical information. Perhaps it was a pseudonym for someone famous?’
Quilley shook his head. ‘I’m afraid I don’t know. Have you read it?’
‘Good Lord, no! I don’t read them. It could damage the spines. Many of them are fragile. Anything I want to read – like your books – I also buy in paperback.’
‘Mr Peplow,’ Quilley said slowly, ‘you asked if there was anything you could do for me. As a matter of fact, there is something you can give me for my services.’
Peplow frowned and pursed his thin lips. ‘Why on earth…?’
‘For my own collection, of course. I’m especially interested in the war period.’
Peplow smiled. ‘Ah! So that’s how you knew so much about them? I’d no idea you were a collector too.’
Quilley shrugged modestly. He could see Peplow struggling, visualizing the gap in his collection. But finally the poor man decided that the murder of his wife was more important to him than an obscure mystery novel. ‘Very well,’ he said gravely. ‘I’ll mail it to you.’
‘How can I be sure…?’
Peplow looked offended. ‘I’m a man of my word, Mr Quilley. A bargain is a bargain.’ He held out his hand. ‘Gentleman’s agreement.’
‘All right.’ Quilley believed him. ‘You’ll be in touch when it’s done?’
‘Yes. Perhaps a brief note in with the Trotton, if you can wait that long. Say two or three weeks?’
‘Fine. I’m in no hurry.’
Quilley hadn’t examined his motives since the first meeting, but he had realized, as he passed on the information and instructions, that it was the challenge he responded to more than anything else. For years he had been writing crime novels, and in providing Peplow with the means to kill his slatternly, overbearing wife, Quilley had derived some vicarious pleasure from the knowledge that he – Inspector Baldry’s creator – could bring off in real life what he had always been praised for doing in fiction.
Quilley also knew that there were no real detectives who possessed Baldry’s curious mixture of intellect and instinct. Most of them were thick plodders, and they would never realize that dull Mr Peplow had murdered his wife with a bunch of foxgloves, of all things. Nor would they ever know that the brains behind the whole affair had been none other than his, Dennis Quilley’s.
The two men drained their glasses and left together. The corner of Bloor and Spadina was busy with tourists and students lining up for charcoal-grilled hot dogs from the street vendor. Peplow turned towards the subway and Quilley wandered among the artsy crowd and the rollerbladers on Bloor Street West for a while, then he settled at an open-air cafe over a daiquiri and a slice of kiwi-fruit cheesecake to read the Globe and Mail.
Now, he thought as he sipped his drink and turned to the arts section, all he had to do was wait. One day soon a small package would arrive for him. Peplow would be free of his wife, and Quilley would be the proud owner of one of the few remaining copies of X. J. Trotton’s one and only mystery novel, Signed in Blood.
Three weeks passed and no package arrived. Occasionally, Quilley thought of Mr Peplow and wondered what had become of him. Perhaps he had lost his nerve after all. That wouldn’t be surprising. Quilley knew that he would have no way of finding out what had happened if Peplow chose not to contact him again. He didn’t know where the man lived or where he worked. He didn’t even know if Peplow was his real name. Still, he thought, it was best that way. No contact. Even the Trotton wasn’t worth being involved in a botched murder for.
Then, at ten o’clock one warm Tuesday morning in September, the doorbell chimed. Quilley looked at his watch and frowned. Too early for the postman. Sighing, he pressed the SAVE command on his PC and walked down to answer the door. A stranger stood there, an overweight woman in a yellow polka-dot dress with short sleeves and a low neck. She had piggy eyes set in a round face and dyed red hair that looked limp and lifeless after a cheap perm. She carried an imitation crocodile-skin handbag.
Quilley must have stood there looking puzzled for too long. The woman’s eyes narrowed and her rosebud mouth tightened so much that white furrows radiated from the red circle of her lips.
‘May I come in?’ she asked.
Stunned, Quilley stood back and let her enter. She walked straight over to a wicker armchair and sat down. The basketwork creaked under her. From there, she surveyed the room, with its waxed parquet floor, stone fireplace and antique Ontario furniture.
‘Nice,’ she said, clutching her handbag on her lap. Quilley sat down opposite her. Her dress was a size too small and the material strained over her red, fleshy upper arms and pinkish bosom. The hem rode up as she crossed her legs, exposing a wedge of fat, mottled thigh. Primly, she pulled it down again over her dimpled knees.
‘I’m sorry to appear rude,’ said Quilley, regaining his composure, ‘but who the hell are you?’
‘My name is Peplow,’ the woman said. ‘Gloria Peplow. I’m a widow.’
Quilley felt a tingling sensation along his spine, the way he always did when fear began to take hold of him.
He frowned and said, ‘I’m afraid I don’t know you, do I?’
‘We’ve never met,’ the woman replied, ‘but I think you knew my husband.’
‘I don’t recall any Peplow. Perhaps you’re mistaken?’
Gloria Peplow shook her head and fixed him with her piggy eyes. He noticed they were black, or as near as. ‘I’m not mistaken, Mr Quilley. You didn’t only know my husband, you also plotted with him to murder me.’
Quilley flushed and jumped to his feet. ‘That’s absurd! Look, if you’ve come here to make insane accusations like that, you’d better go.’ He stood like an ancient statue, one hand pointing dramatically towards the door.
Mrs Peplow smirked. ‘Oh, sit down. You look very foolish standing there like that.’
Quilley continued to stand. ‘This is my home, Mrs Peplow, and I insist that you leave. Now!’
Mrs Peplow sighed and opened the gilded plastic clasp on her purse. She took out a Shoppers Drug Mart envelope, picked out two colour photographs and dropped them next to the Wedgwood dish on the antique wine table by her chair. Leaning forward, Quilley could see clearly what they were: one showed him standing with Peplow outside the Park Plaza, and the other caught the two of them talking outside the Scotiabank at Bloor and Spadina. Mrs Peplow flipped the photos over, and Quilley saw that they had been date-stamped by the processors.
‘You met with my husband at least twice to help him plan my death.’
‘That’s ridiculous. I do remember him now I’ve seen the picture. I just couldn’t recollect his name. He was a fan. We talked about mystery novels. I’m very sorry to hear that he’s passed away.’
‘He had a heart attack, Mr Quilley, and now I’m all alone in the world.’
‘I’m very sorry, but I don’t see…’
Mrs Peplow waved his protests aside. Quilley noticed the dark sweat stain on the tight material around her armpit. She fumbled with the catch on her purse again and brought out a pack of Export Lights and a book of matches.
‘I don’t allow smoking in my house,’ Quilley said. ‘It doesn’t agree with me.’
‘Pity,’ she said, lighting the cigarette and dropping the spent match in the Wedgwood bowl. She blew a stream of smoke directly at Quilley, who coughed and fanned it away.
‘Listen to me, Mr Quilley,’ she said, ‘and listen good. My husband might have been stupid, but I’m not. He was not only a pathetic and boring little man, he was also an open book. Don’t ask me why I married him. He wasn’t even much of a man, if you know what I mean. Do you think I haven’t known for some time that he was thinking of ways to get rid of me? I wouldn’t give him a divorce because the one thing he did – the only thing he did – was provide for me and he didn’t even do that very well. I’d have got half if we divorced, but half of what he earned isn’t enough to keep a bag lady. I’d have had to go to work and I don’t like that idea. So I watched him. He got more and more desperate, more and more secretive. When he started looking smug, I knew he was up to something.’
‘Mrs Peplow,’ Quilley interrupted, ‘this is all very well, but I don’t see what it has to do with me. You come in here and pollute my home with smoke, then you start telling me some fairy tale about your husband, a man I met casually once or twice. I’m busy, Mrs Peplow, and quite frankly I’d rather you left and let me get back to work.’
‘I’m sure you would.’ She flicked a column of ash into the Wedgwood bowl. ‘As I was saying, I knew he was up to something, so I started following him. I thought he might have another woman, unlikely as it seemed, so I took my camera along. I wasn’t really surprised when he headed for the Park Plaza instead of going back to the office after lunch one day. I watched the elevator go up to the nineteenth floor, the bar, so I waited across the street in the crowd for him to come out again. As you know, I didn’t have to wait very long. He came out with you. And it was just as easy the next time.’
‘I’ve already told you, Mrs Peplow, he was a mystery buff, a fellow collector, that’s all-’
‘Yes, yes, I know he was. Him and his stupid catalogues and collection. Still,’ she mused, ‘it had its uses. That’s how I found out who you were. I’d seen your picture on the book covers, of course. If I may say so, it does you more than justice.’ She looked him up and down as if he were a side of beef hanging in a butcher’s window. He cringed. ‘As I was saying, my husband was obvious. I knew he must be chasing you for advice. He spends so much time escaping to his garden or his little world of books that it was perfectly natural he would go to a mystery novelist for advice rather than to a real criminal. I imagine you were a bit more accessible, too. A little flattery and you were hooked. Just another puzzle for you to work on.’
‘Look, Mrs Peplow-’
‘Let me finish.’ She ground out her cigarette butt in the bowl. ‘Foxgloves, indeed! Do you think he could manage to brew up a dose of digitalis without leaving traces all over the place? Do you know what he did the first time? He put just enough in my Big Mac to make me a bit nauseous and make my pulse race, but he left the leaves and stems in the garbage! Can you believe that? Oh, I became very careful in my eating habits after that, Mr Quilley. Anyway, your little plan didn’t work. I’m here and he’s dead.’
Quilley paled. ‘My God, you killed him, didn’t you?’
‘He was the one with the bad heart, not me.’ She lit another cigarette.
‘You can hardly blackmail me for plotting with your husband to kill you when he’s the one who’s dead,’ said Quilley. ‘And as for evidence, there’s nothing. No, Mrs Peplow, I think you’d better go, and think yourself lucky I don’t call the police.’
Mrs Peplow looked surprised. ‘What are you talking about? I have no intention of blackmailing you for plotting to kill me.’
‘Mr Quilley, my husband was blackmailing you. That’s why you killed him.’
Quilley slumped back in his chair. ‘I what?’
She took a sheet of paper from her purse and passed it over to him. On it were just two words: ‘Trotton – Quilley.’ He recognized the neat handwriting. ‘That’s a photocopy,’ Mrs Peplow went on. ‘The original’s where I found it, slipped between the pages of a book called Signed in Blood by X. J. Trotton. Do you know that book, Mr Quilley?’
‘Vaguely. I’ve heard of it.’
‘Oh, have you? It might also interest you to know that along with that book and the slip of paper, locked away in my husband’s files, is a copy of your own first novel. I put it there.’
Quilley felt the room spinning around him. ‘I… I…’ Peplow had given him the impression that Gloria was stupid, but that was turning out to be far from the truth.
‘My husband’s only been dead for two days. If the doctors look, they’ll know that he’s been poisoned. For a start, they’ll find high levels of potassium and then they’ll discover eosinophilia. Do you know what they are, Mr Quilley? I looked them up. They’re a kind of white blood cell, and you find lots of them around if there’s been any allergic reaction or inflammation. If I was to go to the police and say I’d been suspicious about my husband’s behaviour over the past few weeks, that I had followed him and photographed him with you, and if they were to find the two books and the slip of paper in his files… Well, I think you know what they’d make of it, don’t you? Especially if I told them he came home feeling ill after a lunch with you.’
‘It’s not fair,’ Quilley said, banging his fist on the chair arm. ‘It’s just not bloody fair.’
‘Life rarely is. But the police aren’t to know how stupid and unimaginative my husband was. They’ll just look at the note, read the books, and assume he was blackmailing you.’ She laughed. ‘Even if Frank had read the Trotton book, I’m sure he’d have only noticed an “influence”, at the most. But you and I know what really went on, don’t we? It happens more often than people think. A few years ago I read in the newspaper about similarities between a book by Colleen McCullough and The Blue Castle by Lucy Maud Montgomery. I’d say that was a bit obvious, wouldn’t you? It was much easier in your case, much less dangerous. You were very clever, Mr Quilley. You found an obscure novel and you didn’t only adapt the plot for your own first book, you even stole the character of your series detective. There was some risk involved, certainly, but not much. Your book is better, without a doubt. You have some writing talent, which X. J. Trotton completely lacked. But he did have the germ of an original idea, and it wasn’t lost on you, was it?’
Quilley groaned. Thirteen solid police procedurals, twelve of them all his own work, but the first, yes, a deliberate adaptation of a piece of ephemeral trash. He had seen what Trotton could have done and had done it himself. Serendipity, or so it had seemed when he found the dusty volume in a second-hand bookshop in Victoria years ago. All he had had to do was change the setting from London to Toronto, alter the names and set about improving upon the original. And now…? The hell of it was that he would have been perfectly safe without the damn book. He had simply given in to the urge to get his hands on Peplow’s copy and destroy it. It wouldn’t have mattered, really. Signed in Blood would have remained unread on Peplow’s shelf. If only the bloody fool hadn’t written that note…
‘Even if the police can’t make a murder charge stick,’ Mrs Peplow went on, ‘I think your reputation would suffer if this got out. Oh, the great reading public might not care. Perhaps a trial would even increase your sales – you know how ghoulish people are – but the plagiarism would at the very least lose you the respect of your peers. I don’t think your agent and publisher would be very happy either. Am I making myself clear?’
Pale and sweating, Quilley nodded. ‘How much?’ he whispered.
‘I said how much. How much do you want to keep quiet?’
‘Oh, it’s not your money I’m after, Mr Quilley, or may I call you Dennis? Well, not only money, anyway. I’m a widow now. I’m all alone in the world.’
She looked around the room, her piggy eyes glittering, then gave Quilley one of the most disgusting looks he’d ever had in his life.
‘I’ve always fancied living near the lake,’ she said, reaching for another cigarette. ‘Live here alone, do you?’
Francis must be late, surely, Reed thought as he stood waiting on the bridge by the railway station. He was beginning to feel restless and uncomfortable; the handles of his holdall bit into his palm, and he noticed that the rain promised in the forecast that morning was already starting to fall.
Wonderful! Here he was, over two hundred miles away from home, and Francis hadn’t turned up. But Reed couldn’t be sure about that. Perhaps he was early. They had made the same arrangement three or four times over the past five years, but for the life of him Reed couldn’t remember the exact time they’d met.
Reed turned and noticed a plump woman in a threadbare blue overcoat come struggling against the wind over the bridge towards him. She pushed a large pram, in which two infants fought and squealed.
‘Excuse me,’ he called out as she neared him, ‘could you tell me what time school gets out?’
The woman gave him a funny look – either puzzlement or irritation, he couldn’t decide which – and answered in the clipped, nasal accent peculiar to the Midlands, ‘Half past three.’ Then she hurried by, giving Reed a wide berth.
He was wrong. For some reason he had got it into his mind that Francis finished teaching at three o’clock. It was only twenty-five past now, so there would be at least another fifteen minutes to wait before the familiar red Escort came into sight.
The rain was getting heavier and the wind lashed it hard against Reed’s face. A few yards up the road from the bridge was the bus station, which was attached to a large modern shopping centre, all glass and escalators. Reed could stand in the entrance there just beyond the doors, where it was warm and dry, and still watch for Francis.
At about twenty-five to four, the first schoolchildren came dashing over the bridge and into the bus station, satchels swinging, voices shrill and loud with freedom. The rain didn’t seem to bother them, Reed noticed: hair lay plastered to skulls; beads of rain hung on the tips of noses. Most of the boys’ ties were askew, their socks hung loose around their ankles and their shoelaces snaked along the ground. It was a wonder they didn’t trip over themselves. Reed smiled, remembering his own schooldays.
And how alluring the girls looked as they ran smiling and laughing out of the rain into the shelter of the mall. Not the really young ones, the unformed ones, but the older, long-limbed girls, newly aware of their breasts and the swelling of their hips. They wore their clothes carelessly: blouses hanging out, black woolly tights twisted or torn at the knees. To Reed, there was something wanton in their disarray.
These days, of course, they probably all knew what was what, but Reed couldn’t help but feel that there was also a certain innocence about them: a naive, carefree grace in the way they moved and a casual freedom in their laughter and gestures. Life hadn’t got to them yet; they hadn’t felt its weight and seen the darkness at its core.
Mustn’t get carried away, Reed told himself, with a smile. It was all very well to joke with Bill in the office about how sexy the schoolgirls who passed the window each day were, but it was positively unhealthy to mean it, or (God forbid!) attempt to do anything about it. He couldn’t be turning into a dirty old man at thirty-five, could he? Sometimes the power and violence of his fantasies worried him, but perhaps everyone else had them too. It wasn’t something you could talk about at work. He didn’t really think he was abnormal; after all, he hadn’t acted them out, and you couldn’t be arrested for your fantasies, could you?
Where the hell was Francis? Reed peered out through the glass. Wind-blown rain lashed across the huge plate windows and distorted the outside world. All detail was obliterated in favour of the overall mood: grey-glum and dream-like.
Reed glanced at his watch again. After four o’clock. The only schoolchildren left now were the stragglers, the ones who lived nearby and didn’t have to hurry for a bus. They sauntered over the bridge, shoving each other, playing tag, hopping and skipping over the cracks in the pavement, oblivious to the rain and the wind that drove it.
Francis ought to be here by now. Worried, Reed went over the arrangements again in his mind. He knew that he’d got the date right because he’d written it down in his appointment book. Reed had tried to call the previous evening to confirm, but no one had answered. If Francis had been trying to get in touch with him at work or at home, he would have been out of luck. Reed had been visiting another old friend – this one in Exeter – and Elsie, the office receptionist, could hardly be trusted to get her own name right.
When five o’clock came and there was still no sign of Francis, Reed picked up his holdall again and walked back down to the station. It was still raining, but not so fast, and the wind had dropped. The only train back home that night left Birmingham at nine-forty and didn’t get to Carlisle until well after midnight. By then the local buses would have stopped running and he would have to get a taxi. Was it worth it?
There wasn’t much alternative, really. A hotel would be too expensive. Still, the idea had its appeal: a warm room with a soft bed, shower, colour television and maybe even a bar downstairs, where he might meet a girl. He would just have to decide later. Anyway, if he did want to catch the train, he would have to take the eight-fifty from Redditch to get to Birmingham in time. That left three hours and fifty minutes to kill.
As he walked over the bridge and up towards the town centre in the darkening evening, Reed noticed two schoolgirls walking in front of him. They must have been kept in detention, he thought, or perhaps they’d just finished games practice. No doubt they had to do that, even in the rain. One looked dumpy from behind, but her friend was a dream: long wavy hair tumbling messily over her shoulders; short skirt flicking over her long, slim thighs; white socks fallen around her ankles, leaving her shapely calves bare. Reed watched the tendons at the back of her knees flex and loosen as she walked and thought of her struggling beneath him, his hands on her soft throat. They turned down a side street and Reed carried on ahead, shaking off his fantasy.
Could Francis have got lumbered with taking detention or games? he wondered. Or perhaps he had passed by without even noticing Reed sheltering from the rain. He didn’t know where Francis’s school was, or even what it was called. Somehow, the subject had just never come up. Also, the village where Francis lived was about eight miles away from Redditch and the local bus service was terrible. Still, he could phone. If Francis were home, he’d come out again and pick Reed up.
After phoning and getting no answer, Reed walked around town for a long time looking in shop windows and wondering about how to get out of the mess he was in. His holdall weighed heavy in his hand. Finally, he got hungry and ducked out of the light rain into the Tandoori Palace. It was still early, just after six, and the place was empty apart from a young couple absorbed in one another in a dim corner. Reed had the waiter’s undivided attention. He ordered pakoras, tandoori and dhal. The food was very good and Reed ate it too fast.
After the spiced tea, he took out his wallet to pay. He had some cash, but he had decided to have a pint or two, and he might have to take a taxi home from the station. Best hang on to the paper money. The waiter didn’t seem to mind taking plastic, even for so small a sum, and Reed rewarded him with a generous tip.
Next he tried Francis again, but the phone just rang and rang. Why didn’t the bugger invest in an answering machine? Reed cursed. Then he realized he didn’t even have one himself, hated the things. Francis no doubt felt the same way. If you were out, tough tittie; you were out and that was that.
Outside, the street lights reflected in oily puddles on the roads and pavements. After walking off his heartburn for half an hour, thoroughly soaked and out of breath, Reed ducked into the first pub he saw. The locals eyed him suspiciously at first, then ignored him and went back to their drinks.
‘Pint of bitter, please,’ Reed said, rubbing his hands together. ‘In a sleeve glass, if you’ve got one.’
‘Sorry, sir,’ the landlord said, reaching for a mug. ‘The locals bring their own.’
‘Oh, very well.’
‘Yes,’ said Reed. ‘Very.’
‘From these parts?’
‘No. Just passing through.’
‘Ah.’ The landlord passed over a brimming pint mug, took Reed’s money and went back to the conversation he’d been having with a round-faced man in a pin-stripe suit. Reed took his drink over to a table and sat down.
Over the next hour and a half he phoned Francis four more times, but still got no reply. He also changed pubs after each pint, but got very little in the way of a friendly greeting. Finally, at about twenty to nine, knowing he couldn’t bear to wake up in such a miserable town even if he could afford a hotel, he went back to the station and took the train home.
Because of his intended visit to Francis, Reed hadn’t planned anything for the weekend at home. The weather was miserable, anyway, so he spent most of his time indoors reading and watching television, or down at the local. He tried Francis’s number a few more times, but still got no reply. He also phoned Camille, hoping that her warm, lithe body and her fondness for experiment might brighten up his Saturday night and Sunday morning, but all he got was her answering machine.
On Monday evening, just as he was about to go to bed after a long day catching up on boring paperwork, the phone rang. Grouchily, he picked up the receiver: ‘Yes?’
‘This is Francis.’
‘Where the hell-’
‘Did you come all the way down on Friday?’
‘Of course I bloody well did. I thought we had an-’
‘Oh God. Look, I’m sorry, mate, really I am. I tried to call. That woman at work – what’s her name?’
‘That’s the one. She said she’d give you a message. I must admit she didn’t sound as if she quite had her wits about her, but I’d no choice.’
Reed softened a little. ‘What happened?’
‘My mother. You know she’s been ill for a long time?’
‘Well, she died last Wednesday. I had to rush off back to Manchester. Look, I really am sorry, but you can see I couldn’t do anything about it, can’t you?’
‘It’s me who should be sorry,’ Reed said. ‘To hear about your mother, I mean.’
‘Yes, well, at least there’ll be no more suffering for her. Maybe we could get together in a few weeks?’
‘Sure. Just let me know when.’
‘All right. I’ve still got stuff to do, you know, things to organize. How about if I call you back in a couple of weeks?’
‘Great, I’ll look forward to it. Bye.’
‘Bye. And I’m sorry, Terry, really.’ Reed put the phone down and went to bed. So that was it – the mystery solved.
The following evening, just after he’d arrived home from work, Reed heard a loud knock at his door. When he opened it, he saw two strangers standing there. At first he thought they were Jehovah’s Witnesses – who else came to the door in pairs, wearing suits? – but these two didn’t quite look the part. True, one did look a bit like a bible salesman – chubby, with a cheerful, earnest expression on a face fringed by a neatly trimmed dark beard – but the other, painfully thin, with a long, pock-marked face, looked more like an undertaker, except for the way his sharp blue eyes glittered with intelligent suspicion.
‘Mr Reed? Mr Terence J. Reed?’ the cadaverous one said, in a deep, quiet voice, just like the way Reed imagined a real undertaker would speak. And wasn’t there a hint of the Midlands nasal quality in the way he slurred the vowels?
‘Yes, I’m Terry Reed. What is it? What do you want?’ Reed could already see, over their shoulders, his neighbours spying from their windows: little corners of white net-curtain twitched aside to give a clear view.
‘We’re police officers, sir. Mind if we come in for a moment?’ They flashed their identity cards, but put them away before Reed had time to see what was written there. He backed into the hallway and they took their opportunity to enter. As soon as they had closed the door behind them, Reed noticed the one with the beard start glancing around him, taking everything in, while the other continued to hold Reed’s gaze. Finally, Reed turned and led them into the living room. He felt some kind of signal pass between them behind his back.
‘Nice place you’ve got,’ the thin one said, while the other prowled the room, picking up vases and looking inside, opening drawers an inch or two, then closing them again.
‘Look, what is this?’ Reed said. ‘Is he supposed to be poking through my things? I mean, do you have a search warrant or something?’
‘Oh, don’t mind him,’ the tall one said. ‘He’s just like that. Insatiable curiosity. By the way, my name’s Bentley, Detective Superintendent Bentley. My colleague over there goes by the name of Inspector Rodmoor. We’re from the Midlands Regional Crime Squad.’ He looked to see Reed’s reactions as he said this, but Reed tried to show no emotion at all.
‘I still don’t see what you want with me,’ he said.
‘Just routine,’ said Bentley. ‘Mind if I sit down?’
‘Be my guest.’
Bentley sat in the rocker by the fireplace and Reed sat opposite on the sofa. A mug of half-finished coffee stood between them on the glass-topped table, beside a couple of unpaid bills and the latest Radio Times.
‘Would you like something to drink?’ Reed offered.
Bentley shook his head.
‘What about him?’ Reed glanced over nervously towards Inspector Rodmoor, who was looking through his bookcase, pulling out volumes that caught his fancy and flipping through them.
Bentley folded his hands on his lap: ‘Just try to forget he’s here.’
But Reed couldn’t. He kept flicking his eyes edgily from one to the other, always anxious about what Rod-moor was getting into next.
‘Mr Reed,’ Bentley went on, ‘were you in Redditch on the evening of 9 November? Last Friday, that was.’
Reed put his hand to his brow, which was damp with sweat. ‘Let me think now… Yes, yes, I believe I was.’
‘I asked why. Why were you in Redditch? What was the purpose of your visit?’
He sounded like an immigration control officer at the airport, Reed thought. ‘I was there to meet an old university friend,’ he answered. ‘I’ve been going down for a weekend once a year or so ever since he moved there.’
‘And did you meet him?’
‘As a matter of fact, no, I didn’t.’ Reed explained the communications breakdown with Francis.
Bentley raised an eyebrow. Rodmoor rifled through the magazine rack by the fireplace.
‘But you still went there?’ Bentley persisted.
‘Yes. I told you, I didn’t know he’d be away. Look, do you mind telling me what this is about? I think I have a right to know.’
Rodmoor fished a copy of Mayfair out of the magazine rack and held it up for Bentley to see. Bentley frowned and reached over for it. The cover showed a shapely blonde in skimpy pink lace panties and camisole, stockings and a suspender belt. She was on her knees on a sofa, and her round behind faced the viewer. Her face was also turned towards the camera, and she looked as if she’d just been licking her glossy red lips. The thin strap of the camisole had slipped over her upper arm.
‘Nice,’ Bentley said. ‘Looks a bit young, though, don’t you think?’
Reed shrugged. He felt embarrassed and didn’t know what to say.
Bentley flipped through the rest of the magazine, pausing over the colour spreads of naked women in fetching poses.
‘It’s not illegal you know,’ Reed burst out. ‘You can buy it in any newsagent’s. It’s not pornography.’
‘That’s a matter of opinion, isn’t it, sir?’ said Inspector Rodmoor, taking the magazine back from his boss and replacing it.
Bentley smiled. ‘Don’t mind him, lad,’ he said. ‘He’s a Methodist. Now where were we?’
Reed shook his head.
‘Do you own a car?’ Bentley asked.
‘Do you live here by yourself?’
‘Ever been married?’
‘But not to live with?’
‘Magazines enough for you, eh?’
‘Now just a minute-’
‘Sorry,’ Bentley said, holding up his skeletal hand. ‘Pretty tasteless of me, that was. Out of line.’
Why couldn’t Reed quite believe the apology? He sensed very strongly that Bentley had made the remark on purpose to see how he would react. He hoped he’d passed the test. ‘You were going to tell me what all this was about…’
‘Was I? Why don’t you tell me about what you did in Redditch last Friday evening first? Inspector Rodmoor will join us here by the table and take notes. No hurry. Take your time.’
And slowly, trying to remember all the details of that miserable, washed-out evening five days ago, Reed told them. At one point, Bentley asked him what he’d been wearing, and Inspector Rodmoor asked if they might have a look at his raincoat and holdall. When Reed finished, the heavy silence stretched on for seconds. What were they thinking about? he wondered. Were they trying to make up their minds about him? What was he supposed to have done?
Finally, after they had asked him to go over one or two random points, Rodmoor closed his notebook and Bentley got to his feet. ‘That’ll be all for now, sir.’
‘We might want to talk to you again. Don’t know. Have to check up on a few points first. We’ll just take the coat and the holdall with us, if you don’t mind, sir. Inspector Rodmoor will give you a receipt. Be available, will you?’
In his confusion, Reed accepted the slip of paper from Rodmoor and did nothing to stop them taking his things. ‘I’m not planning on going anywhere, if that’s what you mean.’
Bentley smiled. He looked like an undertaker consoling the bereaved. ‘Good. Well, we’ll be off then.’ And they walked towards the door.
‘Aren’t you going to tell me what it’s all about?’ Reed asked again as he opened the door for them. They walked out onto the path, and it was Inspector Rodmoor who turned and frowned. ‘That’s the funny thing about it, sir,’ he said, ‘that you don’t seem to know.’
‘Believe me, I don’t.’
Rodmoor shook his head slowly. ‘Anybody would think you don’t read your papers.’ And they walked down the path to their Rover.
Reed stood for a few moments watching the curtains opposite twitch and wondering what on earth Rodmoor meant. Then he realized that the newspapers had been delivered as usual the past few days, so they must have been in with magazines in the rack, but he had been too disinterested, too tired, or too busy to read any of them. He often felt like that. News was, more often than not, depressing, the last thing one needed on a wet weekend in Carlisle. Quickly, he shut the door on the gawping neighbours and hurried towards the magazine rack.
He didn’t have far to look. The item was on the front page of yesterday’s paper, under the headline, MIDLANDS MURDER SHOCK. It read,
The quiet Midlands town of Redditch is still in shock today over the brutal slaying of schoolgirl Debbie Harrison. Debbie, 15, failed to arrive home after a late hockey practice on Friday evening. Police found her partially clad body in an abandoned warehouse close to the town centre early Saturday morning. Detective Superintendent Bentley, in charge of the investigation, told our reporter that police are pursuing some positive leads. They would particularly like to talk to anyone who was in the area of the bus station and noticed a strange man hanging around the vicinity late that afternoon. Descriptions are vague so far, but the man was wearing a light tan raincoat and carrying a blue holdall.
He read and reread the article in horror, but what was even worse than the words was the photograph that accompanied it. He couldn’t be certain because it was a poor shot, but he thought it was the schoolgirl with the long wavy hair and the socks around her ankles, the one who had walked in front of him with her dumpy friend.
The most acceptable explanation of the police visit would be that they needed him as a possible witness, but the truth was that the ‘strange man hanging around the vicinity’ wearing ‘a light tan raincoat’ and carrying a ‘blue holdall’ was none other than himself, Terence J. Reed. But how did they know he’d been there?
The second time the police called Reed was at work. They marched right into the office, brazen as brass, and asked him if he could spare some time to talk to them down at the station. Bill only looked on curiously, but Frank, the boss, was hardly able to hide his irritation. Reed wasn’t his favourite employee anyway; he hadn’t been turning enough profit lately.
Nobody spoke during the journey, and when they got to the station one of the local policemen pointed Bentley towards a free interview room. It was a bare place: grey metal desk, ashtray, three chairs. Bentley sat opposite Reed, and Inspector Rodmoor sat in a corner, out of his line of vision.
Bentley placed the folder he’d been carrying on the desk and smiled his funeral director’s smile. ‘Just a few further points, Terry. Hope I don’t have to keep you long.’
‘So do I,’ Reed said. ‘Look, I don’t know what’s going on, but shouldn’t I call my lawyer or something?’
‘Oh, I don’t think so. It isn’t as if we’ve charged you or anything. You’re simply helping us with our enquiries, aren’t you? Besides, do you actually have a solicitor? Most people don’t.’
Come to think of it, Reed didn’t have one. He knew one, though. Another old university friend had gone into law and practised nearby. Reed couldn’t remember what he specialized in.
‘Let me lay my cards on the table, as it were,’ Bentley said, spreading his hands on the desk. ‘You admit you were in Redditch last Friday evening to visit your friend. We’ve been in touch with him, by the way, and he verifies your story. What puzzles us is what you did between, say, four and eight-thirty. A number of people saw you at various times, but there’s at least an hour or more here and there that we can’t account for.’
‘I’ve already told you what I did.’
Bentley consulted the file he had set on the desk. ‘You ate at roughly six o’clock, is that right?’
‘About then, yes.’
‘So you walked around Redditch in the rain between five and six, and between six-thirty and seven? Hardly a pleasant aesthetic experience, I’d imagine.’
‘I told you, I was thinking things out. I looked in shops, got lost a couple of times…’
‘Did you happen to get lost in the vicinity of Simmons Street?’
‘I don’t know the street names.’
‘Of course. Not much of a street, really, more an alley. It runs by a number of disused warehouses-’
‘Now wait a minute! If you’re trying to tie me in to that girl’s murder, then you’re way off beam. Perhaps I had better call a solicitor, after all.’
‘Ah!’ said Bentley, glancing over at Rodmoor. ‘So you do read the papers?’
‘I did. After you left. Of course I did.’
‘But not before?’
‘I’d have known what you were on about, then, wouldn’t I? And while we’re on the subject, how the hell did you find out I was in Redditch that evening?’
‘You used your credit card in the Tandoori Palace,’ Bentley said. ‘The waiter remembered you and looked up his records.’
Reed slapped the desk. ‘There! That proves it. If I’d done what you seem to be accusing me of, I’d hardly have been as daft as to leave my calling card, would I?’
Bentley shrugged. ‘Criminals make mistakes, just like everybody else. Otherwise we’d never catch any. And I’m not accusing you of anything at the moment. You can see our problem, though, can’t you? Your story sounds thin, very thin.’
‘I can’t help that. It’s the truth.’
‘What state would you say you were in when you went into the Tandoori Palace?’
‘Yes. Your condition.’
Reed shrugged. ‘I was wet, I suppose. A bit fed up. I hadn’t been able to get in touch with Francis. Hungry, too.’
‘Would you say you appeared agitated?’
‘Not really, no.’
‘But someone who didn’t know you might just assume that you were?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe. I was out of breath.’
‘We’ll I’d been walking around for a long time carrying my holdall. It was quite heavy.’
‘Yes, of course. So you were wet and breathless when you ate in the restaurant. What about the pub you went into just after seven o’clock?’
‘What about it?’
‘Did you remain seated long?’
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
‘Did you just sit and sip your drink, have a nice rest after a heavy meal and a long walk?’
‘Well, I had to go the toilet, of course. And I tried phoning Francis a few more times.’
‘So you were up and down, a bit like a yo-yo, eh?’
‘But I had good reason! I was stranded. I desperately wanted to get in touch with my friend.’
‘Yes, of course. Cast your mind back a bit earlier in the afternoon. At about twenty past three, you asked a woman what time the schools came out.’
‘Yes. I… I couldn’t remember. Francis is a teacher, so naturally I wanted to know if I was early or late. It was starting to rain.’
‘But you’d visited him there before. You said so. He’d picked you up at the same place several times.’
‘I know. I just couldn’t remember if it was three o’clock or four. I know it sounds silly, but it’s true. Don’t you ever forget little things like that?’
‘So you asked the woman on the bridge? That was you?’
‘Yes. Look, I’d hardly have done that, would I, if… I mean… like with the credit card. I’d hardly have advertised my intentions if I was going to… you know…’
Bentley raised a beetle-black eyebrow. ‘Going to what, Terry?’
Reed ran his hands through his hair and rested his elbows on the desk. ‘It doesn’t matter. This is absurd. I’ve done nothing. I’m innocent.’
‘Don’t you find schoolgirls attractive?’ Bentley went on in a soft voice. ‘After all, it would only be natural, wouldn’t it? They can be real beauties at fifteen or sixteen, can’t they? Proper little temptresses, some of them, I’ll bet. Right prick-teasers. Just think about it – short skirts, bare legs, firm young tits. Doesn’t it excite you, Terry? Don’t you get hard just thinking about it?’
‘No, it doesn’t,’ Reed said tightly. ‘I’m not a pervert.’
Bentley laughed. ‘Nobody’s suggesting you are. It gets me going, I don’t mind admitting. Perfectly normal, I’d say, to find a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl sexy. My Methodist inspector might not agree, but you and I know different, Terry, don’t we? All that sweet innocence wrapped up in a soft, desirable young body. Doesn’t it just make your blood sing? And wouldn’t it be easy to get a bit carried away if she resisted, put your hands around her throat…?’
‘No!’ Reed said again, aware of his cheeks burning.
‘What about those women in the magazine, Terry? The one we found at your house?’
‘Don’t tell me you buy it just for the stories.’
‘I didn’t say that. I’m normal. I like looking at naked women, just like any other man.’
‘Some of them seemed very young to me.’
‘For Christ’s sake, they’re models. They get paid for posing like that. I told you before, that magazine’s freely available. There’s nothing illegal about it.’ Reed glanced over his shoulder at Rodmoor, who kept his head bent impassively over his notebook.
‘And you like videos, too, don’t you? We’ve had a little talk with Mr Hakim in your corner shop. He told us about one video in particular you’ve rented lately. Soft porn, I suppose you’d call it. Nothing illegal, true, at least not yet, but a bit dodgy. I’d wonder about a bloke who watches stuff like that.’
‘It’s a free country. I’m a normal single male. I have a right to watch whatever kind of videos I want.’
‘School’s Out,’ Bentley said quietly. ‘A bit over the top, wouldn’t you say?’
‘But they weren’t real schoolgirls. The lead was thirty if she was a day. Besides, I only rented it out of curiosity. I thought it might be a bit of a laugh.’
‘And was it?’
‘I can’t remember.’
‘But you see what I mean, don’t you? It looks bad: the subject-matter, the image. It all looks a bit odd. Fishy.’
‘Well it’s not. I’m perfectly innocent, and that’s the truth.’
Bentley stood up abruptly and Rodmoor slipped out of the room. ‘You can go now,’ the superintendent said. ‘It’s been nice to have a little chat.’
‘For the moment, yes.’
‘But don’t leave town?’
Bentley laughed. ‘You really must give up those American cop shows. Though it’s a wonder you find time to watch them with all those naughty videos you rent. They warp your sense of reality – cop shows and sex films. Life isn’t like that at all.’
‘Thank you. I’ll bear that in mind,’ Reed said. ‘I take it I am free to go?’
‘Of course.’ Bentley gestured towards the door.
Reed left. He was shaking when he got out onto the wet, chilly street. Thank God the pubs were still open. He went into the first one he came to and ordered a double Scotch. Usually he wasn’t much of a spirits drinker, but these, he reminded himself as the fiery liquor warmed his belly, were unusual circumstances. He knew he should go back to work, but he couldn’t face it: Bill’s questions, Frank’s obvious disapproval. No. He ordered another double, and after he’d finished that, he went home for the afternoon. The first thing he did when he got into the house was tear up the copy of Mayfair and burn the pieces in the fireplace one by one. After that, he tore up his video club membership card and burned that too. Damn Hakim!
‘Terence J. Reed, it is my duty to arrest you for the murder of Deborah Susan Harrison…’
Reed couldn’t believe this was happening. Not to him. The world began to shimmer and fade before his eyes, and the next thing he knew Rodmoor was bent over him offering a glass of water, a benevolent smile on his bible salesman’s face.
The next few days were a nightmare. Reed was charged and held until his trial date could be set. There was no chance of bail, given the seriousness of his alleged crime. He had no money anyway, and no close family to support him. He had never felt so alone in his life as he did those long dark nights in the cell. Nothing terrible happened. None of the things he’d heard about in films and documentaries: he wasn’t sodomized; nor was he forced to perform fellatio at knife point; he wasn’t even beaten up. Mostly he was left alone in the dark with his fears. He felt all the certainties of his life slip away from him, almost to the point where he wasn’t even sure of the truth any more: guilty or innocent? The more he proclaimed his innocence, the less people seemed to believe him. Had he done it? He might have done.
He felt like an inflatable doll, full of nothing but air, manoeuvred into awkward positions by forces he could do nothing about. He had no control over his life any more. Not only couldn’t he come and go as he pleased, he couldn’t even think for himself any more. Solicitors and barristers and policemen did that for him. And in the cell, in the dark, everything seemed to close in on him and some nights he had to struggle for breath.
When the trial date finally arrived, Reed felt relief. At least he could breathe in the large, airy courtroom, and soon it would be all over, one way or another.
In the crowded court, Reed sat still as stone in the dock, steadily chewing the edges of his newly grown beard. He heard the evidence against him – all circumstantial, all convincing.
If the police surgeon had found traces of semen in the victim, an expert explained, then they could have tried for a genetic match with the defendant’s DNA, and that would have settled Reed’s guilt or innocence once and for all. But in this case it wasn’t so easy: there had been no seminal fluid found in the dead girl. The forensics people speculated, from the state of her body, that the killer had tried to rape her, found he was impotent and strangled her in his ensuing rage.
A woman called Maggie, with whom Reed had had a brief fling a year or so ago, was brought onto the stand. The defendant had been impotent with her, it was established, on several occasions towards the end of their relationship, and he had become angry about it more than once, using more and more violent means to achieve sexual satisfaction. Once he had gone so far as to put his hands around her throat.
Well, yes he had. He’d been worried. During the time with Maggie, he had been under a lot of stress at work, drinking too much as well, and he hadn’t been able to get it up. So what? Happens to everyone. And she’d wanted it like that, too, the rough way. Putting his hands around her throat had been her idea, something she’d got from a kinky book she’d read, and he’d gone along with her because she told him it might cure his impotence. Now she made the whole sordid episode sound much worse than it had been. She also admitted she had been just eighteen at the time, as well, and, as he remembered, she’d said she was twenty-three.
Besides, he had been impotent and violent only with Maggie. They could have brought on any number of other women to testify to his gentleness and virility, though no doubt if they did, he thought, his promiscuity would count just as much against him. What did he have to do to appear as normal as he needed to be, as he had once thought he was?
The witnesses for the prosecution all arose to testify against Reed like the spirits from Virgil’s world of the dead. Though they were still alive, they seemed more like spirits to him: insubstantial, unreal. The woman from the bridge identified him as the shifty-looking person who had asked her what time the schools came out; the Indian waiter and the landlord of the pub told how agitated Reed had looked and acted that evening; other people had spotted him in the street, apparently following the murdered girl and her friend. Mr Hakim was there to tell the court what kind of videos Reed had rented lately – including School’s Out – and even Bill told how his colleague used to make remarks about the schoolgirls passing by: ‘You know, he’d get all excited about glimpsing a bit of black knicker when the wind blew their skirts up. It just seemed like a bit of a lark. I thought nothing of it at the time.’ Then he shrugged and gave Reed a pitying look. And as if all that weren’t enough, there was Maggie, a shabby Dido, refusing to look at him as she told the court of the way he had abused and abandoned her.
Towards the end of the prosecution case, even Reed’s barrister was beginning to look depressed. He did his best in cross-examination, but the damnedest thing was that they were all telling the truth, or their versions of it. Yes, Mr Hakim admitted, other people had rented the same videos. Yes, he might have even watched some of them himself. But the fact remained that the man on trial was Terence J. Reed, and Reed had recently rented a video called School’s Out, the kind of thing, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, that you wouldn’t want to find your husbands or sons watching.
Reed could understand members of the victim’s community appearing against him, and he could even comprehend Maggie’s hurt pride. But why Hakim and Bill? What had he ever done to them? Had they never really liked him? It went on and on, a nightmare of distorted truth. Reed felt as if he had been set up in front of a funfair mirror, and all the jurors could see was his warped and twisted reflection. I’m innocent, he kept telling himself as he gripped the rail, but his knuckles turned whiter and whiter and his voice grew fainter and fainter.
Hadn’t Bill joined in the remarks about schoolgirls? Wasn’t it all in the spirit of fun? Yes, of course. But Bill wasn’t in the dock. It was Terence J. Reed who stood accused of killing an innocent fifteen-year-old schoolgirl. He had been in the right place at the right time, and he had passed remarks on the budding breasts and milky thighs of the girls who had crossed the road in front of their office every day.
Then, the morning before the defence case was about to open – Reed himself was set to go into the dock, and not at all sure by now what the truth was – a strange thing happened.
Bentley and Rodmoor came softly into the courtroom, tiptoed up to the judge and began to whisper. Then the judge appeared to ask them questions. They nodded. Rodmoor looked in Reed’s direction. After a few minutes of this, the two men took seats and the judge made a motion for the dismissal of all charges against the accused. Pandemonium broke out in court: reporters dashed for phones and the spectators’ gallery buzzed with speculation. Amidst it all, Terry Reed got to his feet, realized what had happened, if not how, and promptly collapsed.
Nervous exhaustion, the doctor said, and not surprising after the ordeal Reed had been through. Complete rest was the only cure.
When Reed felt well enough, a few days after the trial had ended in uproar, his solicitor dropped by to tell him what had happened. Apparently, another schoolgirl had been assaulted in the same area, only this one had proved more than a match for her attacker. She had fought tooth and nail to hang onto her life, and in doing so had managed to pick up a half brick and crack the man’s skull with it. He hadn’t been seriously injured, but he’d been unconscious long enough for the girl to get help. When he was arrested, the man had confessed to the murder of Debbie Harrison. He had known details not revealed in the papers. After a night-long interrogation, police officers had no doubt whatsoever that he was telling the truth. Which meant Reed couldn’t possibly be guilty. Hence motion for dismissal, end of trial. Reed was a free man again.
He stayed at home for three weeks, hardly venturing out of the house except for food, and even then he always went further afield for it than Hakim’s. His neighbours watched him walk by, their faces pinched with disapproval, as if he were some kind of monster in their midst. He almost expected them to get up a petition to force him out of his home.
During that time he heard not one word of apology from the undertaker and the bible salesman; Francis still had ‘stuff to do… things to organize’; and Camille’s answering machine seemed permanently switched on.
At night Reed suffered claustrophobic nightmares of prison. He couldn’t sleep well and even the mild sleeping pills the doctor gave him didn’t really help. The bags grew heavier and darker under his eyes. Some days he wandered the city in a dream, not knowing where he was going, or, when he got there, how he had arrived.
The only thing that sustained him, the only pure, innocent, untarnished thing in his entire life, was when Debbie Harrison visited him in his dreams. She was alive then, just as she had been when he saw her for the first and only time, and he felt no desire to rob her of her innocence, only to partake of it himself. She smelled of apples in autumn and everything they saw and did together became a source of pure wonder. When she smiled, his heart almost broke with joy.
At the end of the third week, Reed trimmed his beard, got out his suit and went in to work. In the office he was met with an embarrassed silence from Bill and a redundancy cheque from Frank, who thrust it at him without a word of explanation. Reed shrugged, pocketed the cheque and left.
Every time he went into town, strangers stared at him in the street and whispered about him in pubs. Mothers held more tightly onto their daughters’ hands when he passed them by in the shopping centres. He seemed to have become quite a celebrity in his home town. At first, he couldn’t think why, then one day he plucked up the courage to visit the library and look up the newspapers that had been published during his trial.
What he found was total character annihilation, nothing less. When the headline about the capture of the real killer came out, it could have made no difference at all; the damage had already been done to Reed’s reputation, and it was permanent. He might have been found innocent of the girl’s murder, but he had been found guilty too, guilty of being a sick consumer of pornography, of being obsessed with young girls, unable to get it up without the aid of a struggle on the part of the female. None of it was true, of course, but somehow that didn’t matter. It had been made so. As it is written, so let it be. And to cap it all, his photograph had appeared almost every day, both with and without the beard. There could be very few people in England who would fail to recognize him in the street.
Reed stumbled outside into the hazy afternoon. It was warming up towards spring, but the air was moist and grey with rain so fine it was closer to mist. The pubs were still open, so he dropped by the nearest one and ordered a double Scotch. The other customers looked at him suspiciously as he sat hunched in his corner, eyes bloodshot and puffy from lack of sleep, gaze directed sharply inwards.
Standing on the bridge in the misty rain an hour later, Reed couldn’t remember making the actual decision to throw himself over the side, but he knew that was what he had to do. He couldn’t even remember how he had ended up on this particular bridge, or the route he’d taken from the pub. He had thought, drinking his third double Scotch, that maybe he should go away and rebuild his life, perhaps abroad. But that didn’t ring true as a solution. Life is what you have to live with, what you are, and now his life was what it had become, or what it had been turned into. It was what being in the wrong place at the wrong time had made it, and that was what he had to live with. The problem was he couldn’t live with it; therefore, he had to die.
He couldn’t actually see the river below – everything was grey – but he knew it was there. The River Eden, it was called. Reed laughed harshly to himself. It wasn’t his fault that the river that runs through Carlisle is called the Eden, he thought; it was just one of life’s little ironies.
Twenty-five to four on a wet Wednesday afternoon. Nobody about. Now was as good a time as any.
Just as he was about to climb onto the parapet, a figure emerged from the mist. It was the first girl on her way home from school. Her grey pleated skirt swished around her long, slim legs, and her socks hung over her ankles. Under her green blazer, the misty rain had wet the top of her white blouse so much that it stuck to her chest. Reed gazed at her in awe. Her long blonde hair had darkened and curled in the rain, sticking in strands over her cheek. There were tears in his eyes. He moved away from the parapet.
As she neared him, she smiled shyly.
Reed stood before her in the mist and held his hands out, crying like a baby.
‘Hello,’ he said.
MURDER IN UTOPIA
I had just finished cauterizing the stump of Ezekiel Metcalfe’s left arm, which I had had to amputate after it was shredded in one of the combing machines, when young Billy Ratcliffe came running in to tell me that a man had fallen over the weir.
Believing my medical skills might be required, I left my assistant Benjamin to take care of Ezekiel and tried to keep up with young Billy as he led me down Victoria Road at a breakneck pace. I was not an old man at that time, but I fear I had led a rather sedentary life, and I was panting by the time we passed the allotment gardens in front of the mill. A little more slowly now, we crossed the railway lines and the canal before arriving at the cast-iron bridge that spanned the River Aire.
Several men had gathered on the bridge, and they were looking down into the water, some of them pointing at a dark shape that seemed to bob and twist in the current. As soon as I got my first look at the scene, I knew that none of my skills would be of any use to the poor soul, whose coat had snagged on a tree root poking out from the river bank.
‘Did anyone see him fall?’ I asked.
They all shook their heads. I picked a couple of stout lads and led them down through the bushes to the river bank. With a little manoeuvring, they were able to lie on their bellies and reach over the shallow edge to grab hold of an arm each. Slowly they raised the dripping body from the water.
When they had completed their task, a gasp arose from the crowd on the bridge. Though his white face was badly marked with cuts and bruises, there could be hardly a person present who didn’t recognize Richard Ellerby, one of Sir Titus Salt’s chief wool buyers.
Saltaire, where the events of which I am about to speak occurred in the spring of 1873, was then a ‘model’ village, a mill workers’ Utopia of some four or five thousand souls, built by Sir Titus Salt in the valley of the River Aire between Leeds and Bradford. The village, laid out in a simple grid system, still stands, looking much the same as it did then, across the railway lines a little to the southwest of the colossal, six-storey woollen mill to which it owes its existence.
As there was no crime in Utopia, no police force was required, and we relied on constables from nearby townships in the unlikely event that any real unpleasantness or unrest should arise. There was certainly no reason to suspect foul play in Richard Ellerby’s death, but legal procedures must be followed in all cases where the circumstances of death are not immediately apparent.
My name is Dr William Oulton, and I was then employed by the Saltaire hospital both as a physician and as a scientist, conducting research into the link between raw wool and anthrax. I also acted as coroner; therefore, I took it as my responsibility to enquire into the facts of Richard Ellerby’s death.
In this case, I also had a personal interest, as the deceased was a close acquaintance of mine, and I had dined with him and his charming wife Caroline on a number of occasions. Richard and I both belonged to the Saltaire Institute – Sir Titus’s enlightened alternative to the evils of public houses – and we often attended chamber-music concerts there together, played a game of billiards or relaxed in the smoking room, where we had on occasion discussed the possible health problems associated with importing wool. I wouldn’t say I knew Richard well - he was, in many ways, reserved and private in my company – but I knew him to be an honest and industrious man who believed wholeheartedly in Sir Titus’s vision.
My post-mortem examination the following day indicated only that Richard Ellerby had enough water in his lungs to support a verdict of death by drowning. Let me repeat: there was no reason whatsoever to suspect foul play. People had fallen over the weir and died in this way before. Assault and murder were crimes that rarely crossed the minds of the denizens of Utopia. That the back of Richard’s skull was fractured, and that his face and body were covered with scratches and bruises, could easily be explained by the tumble he took over the weir. It was May and the thaw had created a spate of melt-water, which thundered down from its sources high in the Pennines with such force as easily to cause those injuries I witnessed on the body.
Of course, there could be another explanation, and that, perhaps, was why I was loath to let matters stand.
If you have imagined from my tone that I was less fully convinced of Saltaire’s standing as a latterday Utopia than some of my contemporaries, then you may compliment yourself on your sensitivity to the nuances of the English language. As I look back on those days, though, I wonder if I am not allowing my present opinions to cloud the glass through which I peer at the past. Perhaps a little. I do know that I certainly believed in Sir Titus’s absolute commitment to the idea, but I also think that even back then, after only thirty years on this earth, I had seen far too much of human nature to believe in Utopias like Saltaire.
Besides, I had another quality that would not permit me to let things rest: if I were a cat, believe me, I would be dead by now, nine lives notwithstanding.
It was another fine morning when I left Benjamin in charge of the ward rounds and stepped out of the hospital on a matter that had been occupying my mind for the past two days. The almshouses over the road made a pretty sight, set back behind their broad swathe of grass. A few pensioners sat on the benches smoking their pipes under trees bearing pink and white blossoms. Men of ‘good moral character’, they benefited from Sir Titus’s largesse to the extent of free accommodation and a pension of seven shillings and six pence per week, but only as long as they continued to show their ‘good moral character’. Charity, after all, is not for everyone, but only for those who merit it.
Lest you think I was a complete cynic at such an early age, I must admit that I found much to admire about Saltaire. Unlike the cramped, airless and filthy back-to-back slums of Bradford, where I myself had seen ten or more people sharing a dark, dank cellar that flooded every time it rained, Saltaire was designed as an open and airy environment. The streets were all paved and well drained, avoiding the filthy conditions that breed disease. Each house had its own outdoor lavatory, which was cleared regularly, again averting the possibility of sickness caused by the sharing of such facilities. Sir Titus also insisted on special measures to reduce the output of smoke from the mill, so that we didn’t live under a pall of suffocating fumes, and our pretty sandstone houses were not crusted over with a layer of grime. Still, there is a price to pay for everything, and in Saltaire it was the sense of constantly living out another man’s moral vision.
I turned left on Titus Street, passing by the house with the ‘spy’ tower on top. This extra room was almost all windows, like the top of a lighthouse, and I had often spotted a shadowy figure up there. Rumour has it that Sir Titus employed a man with a telescope to survey the village, to look for signs of trouble and report any infringements to him. I thought I saw someone up there as I passed, but it could have been a trick of sunlight on the glass.
Several women had hung out their washing to dry across Ada Street, as usual. Though everyone knew that Sir Titus frowned on this practice – indeed, he had generously provided public wash houses in an attempt to discourage it – this was their little way of asserting their independence, of cocking a snook at authority.
As befitted a wool buyer, Richard Ellerby had lived with his wife and two children in one of the grander houses on Albert Road, facing westwards, away from the mill towards the open country. According to local practice after bereavement, the upstairs curtains were drawn.
I knocked on the door and waited. Caroline Ellerby opened it herself, wearing her widow’s black, and bade me enter. She was a handsome woman, but today her skin was pale and her eyes red-rimmed from weeping. When I was seated in her spacious living room, she asked me if I would care for a small sherry. While Sir Titus would allow no public houses in Saltaire, convinced that they encouraged vice, idleness and profligacy, he held no objection to people serving alcohol in their own homes. Indeed, he was known to keep a well-stocked wine cellar himself. On this occasion I declined, citing the earliness of the hour and the volume of work awaiting me back at the hospital.
Caroline Ellerby smoothed her voluminous black skirts and sat on the chesterfield. After I had expressed my sorrow over her loss and she had inclined her head in acceptance, I moved on to the business that had been occupying my thoughts.
‘I need to ask you a few questions about Richard’s accident,’ I explained to her, ‘only if, that is, you feel up to answering them.’
‘Of course,’ she said, folding her hands on her lap. ‘Please continue.’
‘When did you last see your husband?’
‘The evening before… before he was discovered.’
‘He was away from the house all night?’
‘But surely you must have noticed he was missing?’ I realized I was perhaps on the verge of being offensive, or even well beyond the verge, but the matter puzzled me, and when things puzzle me I worry away at them until they yield a solution. I could no more help myself than a tiger can change its stripes.
‘I took a sleeping draught,’ she said. ‘I’m afraid I wouldn’t have woken up if you’d set me down in the weaving shed.’
Given that the weaving shed contained twelve hundred power looms, all thrumming and clattering at once, I suspected Caroline of hyperbole, but she got her point across.
‘Believe me,’ she went on, ‘I have been tormenting myself ever since… If I hadn’t taken the sleeping draught. If I had noticed he hadn’t come home. If I had tried to find him…’
‘It wouldn’t have helped, Caroline,’ I said. ‘His death must have been very swift. There was nothing you could have done. There’s no use torturing yourself.’
‘You’re very kind, but even so…’
‘When did you notice that Richard hadn’t come home?’
‘Not until George Walker from the office came to tell me.’
I paused before going on, uncertain how to soften my line of enquiry. ‘Caroline, believe me, I don’t mean to pry unnecessarily or to cause you any distress, but do you have any idea where Richard went that night?’
She seemed puzzled at my question. ‘Went? Why, he went to the Travellers’ Rest, of course, out on the Otley Road.’
It was my turn to be surprised. I thought I had known Richard Ellerby, but I didn’t know he was a frequenter of public houses; the subject had simply never come up between us. ‘The Travellers’ Rest? Did he go there often?’
‘Not often, no, but he enjoyed the atmosphere of a good tavern on occasion. According to Richard, the Travellers’ Rest was a respectable establishment. I had no reason not to believe him.’
‘Of course not.’ I knew of the place, and had certainly heard nothing to blacken its character.
‘You seem puzzled, Dr Oulton.’
‘Only because your husband never mentioned it to me.’
Caroline summoned up a brief smile. ‘Richard comes from humble origins, as I’m sure you know. He has worked very hard, both in Bradford and here at Saltaire, to achieve the elevated position he has attained. He is a great believer in Mr Samuel Smiles and his doctrine of self-help. Despite his personal success and advancement, though, he is not a snob. He has never lost touch with his origins. Richard enjoys the company of his fellow working men in the cheery atmosphere of a good tavern. That is all.’
I nodded. There was nothing unusual in that. I myself ventured to the Shoulder of Mutton, up on the Bingley Road, on occasion. After all, the village was not intended as a prison. It was beginning to dawn on me, though, that Richard probably assumed I was above such things as public houses because I was a member of the professional classes, or that I disapproved of them on health grounds because I was a doctor. I felt a pang of regret that we had never been able to get together over a pipe and a pint of ale. Now that he was dead, we never would.
‘Did he ever overindulge?’ I went on. ‘I ask only because I’m searching for a reason for what happened. If Richard had, perhaps, had too much to drink that night and missed his footing…?’
Caroline pursed her lips and frowned, deep in thought for a moment. ‘I’ll not say he’s never had a few too many,’ she admitted, ‘but I can say that he was not in the habit of overindulging.’
‘And there was nothing on his mind, nothing that might tempt him to have more than his share that night?’
‘There were many things on Richard’s mind, especially as regarded his work, but nothing unusual, nothing that would drive him to drink, of that I can assure you.’ She paused. ‘Dr Oulton, is there anything else? I’m afraid I’m very tired. Even with the sleeping draught… the past couple of nights… I’m sure you can understand. I’ve had to send the children to mother’s. I just can’t handle them at the moment.’
I got to my feet. ‘Of course. You’ve been a great help already. Just one small thing?’
She tilted her head. ‘Yes?’
‘Did Richard have any enemies?’
‘Enemies? No. Not that I know of. Surely you can’t be suggesting someone did this to him?’
‘I don’t know, Caroline. I just don’t know. That’s the problem. Please, stay where you are. I’ll see myself out.’
As I walked back to the hospital, I realized that was the problem: I didn’t know. I also found myself wondering what on earth Richard was doing by the weir if he was coming home from the Travellers’ Rest. The canal tow-path would certainly be an ideal route to the tavern and back, but the river was north of the canal, and Richard Ellerby’s house was south.
On my way to the Travellers’ Rest that evening, I considered the theory that Richard might have attracted the attention of a villain, or a group of villains, who had subsequently followed him, robbed him and tossed his body over the weir. The only problem with my theory, as far as I could see, was that he still had several gold sovereigns in his pocket, and no self-respecting thieves would have overlooked a haul that big.
As it turned out, the Travellers’ Rest was as respectable a tavern as Richard had told his wife, and as cheery a one as I could have hoped for after my gloomy thoughts. It certainly didn’t seem to be a haunt of cutpurses and ruffians. On the contrary, the gas-lit public bar was full of warm laughter and conversation, and I recognized several groups of mill workers, many of whom I had treated for one minor ailment or another. Some of them looked up, surprised to see me there, and muttered sheepish hellos. Others were brash and greeted me more loudly, taking my presence as an endorsement of their own indulgence. Jack Liversedge was there, sitting alone in a corner nursing his drink. My heart went out to him; poor Jack had been severely depressed ever since he lost his wife to anthrax two months before, and there seemed nothing anyone could do to console him. He didn’t even look up when I entered.
I made my way to the bar and engaged the landlord’s attention. He was a plump man with a veined red nose, rather like a radish, which seemed to me to indicate that he was perhaps a whit too fond of his own product. He nodded a crisp greeting, and I asked for a pint of ale. When I had been served, noticing a slight lull in business, I introduced myself and asked him if he remembered Richard Ellerby’s last visit. Once I had described my late colleague, he said that he did.
‘Proper gentleman, Mr Ellerby was, sir. I were right sorry to hear about what happened.’
‘I was wondering if anything unusual happened that evening.’
‘Did he drink too much?’
‘No, sir. Two or three ales. That’s his limit.’
‘So he wasn’t drunk when he left here, unsteady in his gait?’
‘No, sir. Excuse me a moment.’ He went to serve another customer then came back. ‘No, sir, I can’t say as I’ve ever seen Mr Ellerby inebriated.’
‘Were there any rough elements in here that night?’
He shook his head. ‘Any rough elements I send packing, up to the Feathers on the Leeds Road. That’s a proper rough sort of place, that is. But this is a respectable establishment.’ He leaned forward across the bar. ‘I’ll tell thee summat for nowt, if Mr Salt won’t have public houses in his village, there’s no better place for his workers to pass an hour or two than the Travellers’ Rest, and that’s God’s honest truth.’
‘I’m sure you’re right,’ I said, ‘but surely things must get a little out of hand on occasion?’
He laughed. ‘Nothing I can’t handle.’
‘And you’re sure nothing strange happened the last night Mr Ellerby was here?’
‘You’d be better off asking him over there about that.’ He nodded towards Jack Liversedge, who seemed engaged in a muttered dispute with himself. ‘I’ve as much pity as the next man for a fellow who’s lost his wife, poor beggar, but the way he’s carrying on…’ He shook his head.
‘They got into a bit of a barney.’
He shrugged. ‘I heard Mr Liversedge call Mr Ellerby no better than a murderer, then he finished his drink and walked out.’
‘How much longer before Mr Ellerby left?’
‘Five minutes, mebbe. Not long.’
I mulled this over as he excused himself to serve more customers. Jack Liversedge’s wife, Florence, a wool sorter, had died of anthrax two months ago. It is a terrible disease, and one we were only slowly coming to understand. Through my own research, I had been in correspondence with two important scientists working in the field: M. Casimir-Joseph Davaine, in France, and Herr Robert Koch, in Germany. Thus far we had been able to determine that the disease is caused by living microorganisms, most likely hiding in the alpaca wool of the South American llamas and the mohair of the Angora goats, both of which Sir Titus imported to make his fine cloths, but we were a long way from finding a prevention or a cure.
As I sipped my ale and looked at Jack Liversedge, I began to wonder. Richard Ellerby was a wool buyer. Had Jack, in his distraught and confused state, considered him culpable of Florence’s death? Certainly from what I had seen and heard of Jack’s erratic behaviour since her death, it was possible, and he was a big, strong fellow.
I was just about to go over to him, without having any clear plan in mind of what to say, when he seemed to come to a pause in his argument with himself, slammed his tankard down and left, bumping into several people on his way out. I decided to go after him.
I followed Jack down the stone steps to the towpath and called out his name, at which he turned and asked who I was. I introduced myself.
‘Ah,’ he said, ‘’tis thee, Doctor.’
The towpath was unlit, but the canal was straight, and the light of a three-quarter moon lay on the still water like a shroud. It was enough to enable us to see our way.
‘I saw you in the Travellers’ Rest,’ I said. ‘You seemed upset. I thought we might share the walk home, if that’s all right?’
‘As you will.’
We walked in silence, all the while growing closer to the mill, which rose ahead in the silvery light, a ghostly block of sandstone against the black, starlit sky. I didn’t know how to broach the subject that was on my mind, fearing that if I were right, Jack would put up a fight, and if I were wrong he would be justly offended. Finally, I decided to muddle along as best I could.
‘I hear Richard Ellerby was in the Travellers’ the other night, Jack.’
‘Is that so?’
‘Yes. I hear you argued with him.’
‘Mebbe I did.’
‘What was it about, Jack? Did you get into a fight with him?’
Jack paused on the path to face me, and for a moment I thought he was going to come at me. I braced myself, but nothing happened. The mill loomed over his shoulder. I could see a number of emotions cross his features in the moonlight, from fear and sorrow to, finally, resignation. He seemed somehow relieved that I had asked him about Richard.
‘He were the wool buyer, weren’t he?’ he said, with gritted anger in his voice. ‘He should’ve known.’
I sighed. ‘Oh, Jack. Nobody could have known. He just buys the wool. There are no tests. There’s no way of knowing.’
‘It’s not right. He bought the wool that killed her. Someone had to pay.’
He turned his back to me and walked on. I followed. We got to the bottom of Victoria Road, and I could hear the weir roaring to our right. Jack walked to the cast-iron bridge, where he stood gazing into the rushing water. I went and stood beside him. ‘And whose place is it to decide who pays, Jack?’ I asked, raising my voice over the water’s roar. ‘Whose job do you think it is to play God? Yours?’
He looked at me with pity and contempt, then shook his head and said, ‘You don’t understand.’
I looked down into the water, its foam tipped with moonlight. ‘Did you kill him?’ I asked. ‘Did you kill Richard Ellerby because you blamed him for Florence’s death?’
He said nothing for a moment, then gave a brief, jerky nod. ‘There he were,’ he said, ‘standing there in his finest coat, drinking and laughing, while my Florence were rotting in her grave.’
‘How did it happen?’
‘I told him he were no better than a murderer, buying up wool that kills people. I mean, it weren’t the first time, were it? He said it weren’t his fault, that nobody could’ve known. Then, when I told him he should take more care, he said I didn’t understand, that it were just a hazard of the job, like, and that she should’ve known she were taking a risk before she took it on.’
If Richard really had spoken that way to Jack, then he had certainly been guilty of exhibiting a gross insensitivity I had not suspected to be part of his character. Even if that was the case, we are all capable of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, especially if we are pushed as far as Jack probably pushed Richard. What he had done had certainly not justified his murder.
‘How did it happen, Jack?’ I asked him.
After a short pause, he said, ‘I waited for him on the towpath. All the way home we argued and in the end I lost my temper. There were a long bit of wood from a packing crate or summat by the bushes. He turned his back on me and started walking away. I picked it up and clouted him and down he went.’
‘But why the weir?’
‘I realized what I’d done.’ He gave a harsh laugh. ‘It’s funny, you know, especially now it doesn’t matter. But back then, when I’d just done it, when I knew I’d killed a man, I panicked. I thought if I threw his body over the weir then people would think he’d fallen. It weren’t far, and he weren’t a heavy man.’
‘He wasn’t dead, Jack,’ I said. ‘He had water in his lungs. That meant he was alive when he went into the water.’
‘It’s no matter,’ said Jack. ‘One way or another, it was me who killed him.’
The water roared in my ears. Jack turned towards me. I flinched and stepped back again, thrusting my arm out to keep him at a distance.
He shook his head slowly, tears in his eyes, and spoke so softly I had to strain to hear him. ‘Nay, Doctor, you’ve nowt to fear from me. It’s me who’s got summat to fear from you.’
I shook my head. I really didn’t know what to do, and my heart was still beating fast from the fear that he had been going to tip me over the railing.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘all I ask is that you leave it till morning. One more night in the house me and Florence shared. Will you do that for me, at least, Doctor?’
As I nodded numbly, he turned and began to walk away.
Early the following morning, after a miserable night spent tossing and turning, grappling with my conscience, I was summoned from the hospital to the works office building, attached to the west side of the mill. I hurried down Victoria Road, wondering what on earth it could be about, and soon found myself ushered into a large, well-appointed office with a thick Turkish carpet, dark wainscoting and a number of local landscapes hanging on the walls. Sitting behind the huge mahogany desk was Sir Titus himself, still a grand, imposing figure despite his years and his declining health.
‘Dr Oulton,’ he said, without looking up from his papers. ‘Please sit down.’
I wondered what had brought him the twelve miles or so from Crows Nest, where he lived. He rarely appeared at the mill in those days.
‘I understand,’ he said in his deep, commanding voice, still not looking at me, ‘that you have been enquiring into the circumstances surrounding Richard Ellerby’s death?’
I nodded. ‘Yes, Sir Titus.’
‘And what, pray, have you discovered?’
I took a deep breath, then told him everything. As I spoke, he stood up, clasped his hands behind his back and paced the room, head hanging so that his grey beard almost reached his waist. Though his cheeks and eyes looked sunken, as if he was ill, his presence dominated the room. When I had finished, he sat down again and treated me to a long silence before he said, ‘And what are we going to do about it?’
‘The police will have to be notified.’
‘As yet, then, you and I are the only ones who know the full truth?’
‘And Jack himself.’
‘Yes, of course.’ Sir Titus stroked his beard. I could hear the muffled noise of the mill and feel the vibrations of the power looms shaking the office. It was a warm day, and despite the open window the room was stuffy. I felt the sweat gather on my brow and upper lip. I gazed out of the window and saw the weir, where Richard Ellerby had met his death. ‘This is not good,’ Sir Titus said finally. ‘Not good at all.’
He gestured with his arm to take in the whole of Saltaire. ‘What I mean, Dr Oulton, is that this could be very bad for the village. Very bad. Do you have faith in the experiment?’
‘The experiment, sir?’
‘The moral experiment that is Saltaire.’
‘I have never doubted your motive in wanting to do good, sir.’
Sir Titus managed a thin smile. ‘A very revealing answer.’ Another long silence followed. He got up and started pacing again. ‘If a man visits a public house and becomes so intoxicated that he falls in a river and drowns, then that is an exemplary tale for all of us, wouldn’t you say?’
‘I would, sir.’
‘And if a man, after visiting a public house, is followed by a group of ruffians who attack him, rob him and throw him in a river to drown, then again we have an exemplary – nay, a cautionary - tale, do we not?’
‘We do, sir. But Richard Ellerby wasn’t robbed.’
He waved his hand impatiently. ‘Yes, yes, of course. I know that. I’m merely thinking out loud. Please forgive an old man his indulgence. This place – Saltaire – means the world to me, Dr Oulton. Can you understand that? The world.’
‘I think I can, sir.’
‘It’s not just a matter of profits, though I’ll not deny it’s profitable enough. But I think I have created something unique. I call it my “experiment”, of course, yet for others it is a home, a way of life. At least I hope it is. It was my aim to make Saltaire everything Bradford was not. It was designed to nurture self-improvement, decency, orderly behaviour and good health among my workers. I wanted to prove that making my own fortune was not incompatible with the material and spiritual wellbeing of the working classes. I saw it as my duty, my God-given duty. If the Lord looks so favourably upon me, then I take that as an obligation to look favourably upon my workers. Do you follow me?’
‘And now this. Murder. Manslaughter. Call it what you will. It disrupts the fabric of things. It could destroy any trust that might have built up in the community. No doubt you remember the troubles we had over anthrax some years ago?’
‘I do, sir.’ In 1868 a man called Sutcliffe Rhodes had garnered much support from the village in his campaign against anthrax, and Sir Titus had been seriously embarrassed by the whole matter. ‘But surely you can’t expect me to ignore what I know, sir?’ I said. ‘To lie.’
Sir Titus smiled grimly. ‘I could never ask a man to go against his beliefs, Doctor. All I ask is that you follow the dictates of your own conscience, but that you please bear in mind the consequences. If this issue surfaces again, especially in this way, then we’re done for. Nobody will believe in the goodness of Saltaire any more, and I meant it to be a good place, a place where there would never be any reason for murder to occur.’
He shook his head in sadness and let the silence stretch again. Above the noise of the mill I suddenly heard men shouting. Someone hammered on the door and dashed into the office without ceremony. I couldn’t be certain, but my first impression was that it was the same shadowy figure I had seen in the ‘spy’ tower.
‘Sir Titus,’ the interloper said, after a quick bow, ‘my apologies for barging in like this, but you must come. There’s a man on the mill roof.’
Sir Titus and I frowned at one another, then we followed him outside. I walked slowly, in deference to Sir Titus’s age, and it took us several minutes to get around to the allotment gardens, from where we had a clear view.
The man stood atop the mill roof, full six storeys up, between its two decorative lanterns. I could also make out another figure inside one of the lanterns, perhaps talking to him. But the man on the roof didn’t appear to be listening. He stood right at the edge and, even as we watched, he spread out his arms as if attempting to fly, then he sprang off the roof and seemed to hover in the air for a moment before falling with a thud to the forecourt.
It was a curious sensation. Though I knew in my heart and mind that I was witnessing the death of a fellow human being, there was a distant quality about the event. The figure was dwarfed by the mill, for a start, and just in front of us, a dog scratched at the dirt, as if digging for its bone, and it didn’t cease during the man’s entire fall to earth.
A mill hand came running up and told us that the man who had jumped was Jack Liversedge. Again it was an eerie feeling, but I suppose, in a way, I already knew that.
‘An accident and a suicide,’ muttered Sir Titus, fixing me with his deep-set eyes. ‘It’s bad enough, but we can weather it, wouldn’t you say, Doctor?’ There was hope in his voice.
My jaw tensed. I was tempted to tell him to go to hell, that his vision, his experiment, wasn’t worth lying for. But I saw in front of me a sick old man who had at least tried to do something for the people who made him rich. Whether it was enough or not was not for me to say. Saltaire wasn’t perfect – perfection is a state we will never find on this earth – but it was better than most mill towns.
Swallowing my bile, I gave Sir Titus a curt nod and set off back up Victoria Road to the hospital.
In the days and weeks that followed, I tried to continue with my work – after all, the people of Saltaire still needed a hospital and a doctor – but after Jack Liversedge’s pointless death, my heart just didn’t seem to be in it any more. Jack’s dramatic suicide lowered the morale of the town for a short while – there were long faces everywhere and some mutterings of dissent – but eventually it was forgotten, and the townspeople threw themselves back into their work: weaving fine cloths of alpaca and mohair for those wealthy enough to be able to afford them.
Still, no matter how much I tried to convince myself to put the matter behind me and carry on, I felt there was something missing from the community; something more than a mere man had died the day Jack killed himself.
One day, after I had spent a wearying few hours tending to one of the wool sorters dying of anthrax, I made my decision to leave. A month later, after sorting out my affairs and helping my replacement settle in, I left Saltaire for South Africa, where I eventually met the woman who was to become my wife. We raised our three children, and I practised my profession in Cape Town for thirty years. After my retirement, we decided to move back to England, where we settled comfortably in a small Cornish fishing village. Now, my children are grown up, married and gone away, my wife is dead and I am an old man who spends his days wandering the cliffs above the sea watching the birds soar and dip.
And sometimes the sound of the waves reminds me of the roar of the Saltaire weir.
More than forty years have now passed since that night by the weir, when Jack Liversedge told me he had killed Richard Ellerby; more than forty years have passed since Sir Titus and I stood by the allotments and saw Jack’s body fall and break on the forecourt of the mill.
Forty years. Long enough to keep a secret.
Besides, the world has changed so much since then that what happened that day long ago in Saltaire seems of little consequence now. Sir Titus died three years after Jack’s fall, and his dream died with him. Fashions changed, and the ladies no longer wanted the bright, radiant fabrics that Sir Titus had produced. His son, Titus junior, struggled with the business until he, too, died in 1887, and the mill was taken over by a consortium of Bradford businessmen. Today, Saltaire is no longer a moral experiment or a mill workers’ Utopia; it is merely another business.
And today, in July 1916, nobody believes in Utopias any more.
NOT SAFE AFTER DARK
He had only gone out to the convenience store for cigarettes, but the park across the intersection looked inviting. It seemed to offer a brief escape from the heat and dirt and noise of the city. Cars whooshed by, radios blasting rock and funk and rap into the hot summer night. Street lights and coloured neons looked smeared and blurry in the humid heat. A walk among the trees by the lake might cool him down a little.
He knew he shouldn’t, knew it was dangerous. What was it the guidebooks always said about big city parks? Not safe after dark. That was it. No matter which park they talked about – Central Park, Golden Gate Park – they were always not safe after dark.
He wondered why. Parks were quiet, peaceful places, a few acres of unspoilt nature in the heart of the city. People took their dogs for walks; children played on swings and teeter-totters. Parks provided retreats for meditation and the contemplation of nature, surely, not playgrounds for the corrupt and the delinquent.
There was more danger, he thought, among the dregs of humanity that haunted the vast urban sex and drug supermarkets like Times Square or the Tenderloin. There you got mugged, beaten up, raped, even murdered, for no good reason at all.
Hoodlums and thugs weren’t into nature; they were happier idling on street corners harassing passers-by, starting fights in strip clubs or rock bars, and selling drugs in garbage-strewn alleys. If they wanted to mug someone, they had more chance downtown, where the crowds were thick and some fool always took a short cut down a dark alley. If they just wanted to scare and hurt people for the fun of it, crowded places like shopping malls guaranteed them both the victims and the audience.
Or so he found himself reasoning as he stood there by the traffic lights. Should he risk it? Over the road, the dark, tangled mass of branches tossed in the hot breeze like billowing black smoke against the starlit sky. A yellowish full moon, surrounded by a halo, gilded the tree tops. The traffic lights changed to green, and after only a moment’s hesitation, he began to cross. Why not? What could possibly happen? The entrance, a long, tree-lined avenue, seemed rolled out like a tongue ready to lick him up and draw him into the park’s dark mouth. Maybe he had a death wish, though he didn’t think so.
Muted wrought-iron street lamps flanked the broad cinder path, which led under a small imitation Arc de Triomphe gate overgrown with weeds and lichen. Beyond that, the branches swayed slowly in the muggy gusts, leaves making a wet, hissing sound. The dimly lit path, he noticed, was lined with statues. He went over to see if he could make out any of the names. Writers: Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Tennyson, Wordsworth. What on earth were they doing there?
The avenue ended at a small boating pool. In the water, a child’s yacht with a white sail turned in slow circles. The sight brought a lump to his throat. He didn’t know why, but somewhere, perhaps buried deep in his memories, was just such a feeling of loss or of drifting aimlessly in circles, never arriving. It made him feel suddenly, inexplicably sad.
Beyond the pond the park stretched, rising and falling down to the lake. Here were no broad avenues, only tarmac paths and dirt trails. He took one of the main paths that wound deeper into the woods. He could always take a side path later if he wanted. So far he had seen no one, and the traffic from the main road sounded more and more distant behind him. It was much darker now, away from the dim antique lights of the entrance. Only the jaundiced and haze-shrouded moon shone through the trees and slicked the path with oily gold. But as he walked, he found his eyes soon adjusted. At least he could make out shapes, if not details.
After he had been walking a few minutes, he noticed a playground to his left. There was nobody in it at this time of night, but one of the swings was rocking back and forth gently in the wind, creaking where its chains needed greasing. He felt like sitting on one of the wooden seats and shooting himself high, aiming his feet at the moon. But it would only draw unwelcome attention. Just being here was supposed to be dangerous enough, without asking for trouble. Somewhere, back on the road, he heard the whine of a police siren.
Off to the right, a path wound up the hillside between the trees. He took it. It was some kind of fitness trail. Every so often, he could make out wooden chin bars where the joggers were encouraged to pause and do a few pull-ups. Occasionally, he would hear a scuttling sound in the undergrowth. At first, it scared him, but he figured it was only a harmless squirrel, or a chipmunk running away.
The path straightened out at the top of the short hill, and almost before he knew it he was in a clearing surrounded by trees. He thought he heard a different sound now, a low moan or a sigh. He pulled back quickly behind a tree. In the clearing stood a number of picnic benches, and at one of them he could just make out a couple of human figures. It took him a few seconds to focus clearly in the poor light, but when he realized what was happening, his throat constricted and his heart seemed to start thumping so loudly he was sure they could hear him.
There were two of them. One half-sat on the table edge, hands stretched behind, supporting himself as he arched backwards. The other knelt at his feet, head bowed forward. They seemed to freeze for a moment, as if they had heard him, then the one on the table said something he couldn’t quite catch and the one on his knees continued slowly moving his head forward and back.
He felt sick and dizzy. He clutched onto the tree tightly and tried to control the swimming feeling in his head. He couldn’t afford to faint – not here, not now, with those two so close. After a few deep breaths, he turned as quietly as he could and hurried down a dirt track that forked off in another direction.
After he had covered a good distance as fast as he dare go, he squatted in the ferns at the side of the trail, head in hands, and waited for his heart to still and his breathing to become regular. An insect crawled up his bare arm; he shuddered and brushed it off.
He was beginning to feel really scared now. He had no idea where he was, which direction he was travelling in. Like that yacht back in the pond a million miles away, he could be going in circles. Again he fought back the panic and walked on. Now he cursed his stupidity. Why had he come here? It hadn’t been a good idea at all. He would wander round and round, then end up back where he started. He would collapse with exhaustion and those two men from the picnic table would find him and… Maybe he did have a death wish, after all. He should have taken notice of the guidebooks. He told himself to stop panicking and calm down.
Before he had got much further, he heard voices just off the path over to his left. He paused. Someone was singing an old Neil Young song. Someone else said ‘Shut up,’ then a girl giggled. After that came more singing, then a loud yell. They were drunk; that was it. As if to confirm his suspicions, he heard the sound of a bottle smashing on a road. He decided he had better lie low and keep out of their way. There was no telling what a gang of drunks might do to someone walking alone in the park. So he waited, behind a tree, as their voices faded slowly into the distance. He stayed where he was until he could hear them no longer, then set off again.
When he crested the next hill, he could see the lights of houses to his right and left. The park had narrowed to a kind of deep ravine now, and the path he was on ran parallel to its bottom, about halfway up one side. If he left the path and walked all the way up the side, he would probably soon find himself in someone’s back garden.
He could see the moonlight gleaming on the surface of the narrow stream that flowed along the bottom. Across the other side, he could make out the lights of a police car flashing along a road that skirted the ravine’s edge. The hillside was thickly wooded and the spaces between trees filled with ferns and shrubbery. At least now, he thought, he ought to be able to find his way back to civilization easily enough.
He heard a noise lower down the hillside and realized there was another path, running parallel to his, about fifty yards below, closer to the water. Again, he froze. This sound was far too loud to be a squirrel or a bird; it certainly wasn’t the sound of a small animal running away, but more like a large one coming towards him.
He crouched by the edge of the dirt path and peered down through the bushes. He couldn’t make much out at first, but something was moving through the undergrowth. A few moments later, his heart beating fast again, he saw the eyes, not more than thirty yards away down the slope. What was it? A fox? A wolf? Then he heard the woman’s voice: ‘Jason! Jason! Where are you, boy? Come on.’ And she whistled. So it was a dog! But Jason took no notice of her. It seemed to have caught his scent and was making its way cautiously up the hillside to check him out.
He couldn’t tell from that distance in the dark, but he was worried that it might be a pit bull or a Rottweiler. Surely no woman would go walking alone in the park at night without a vicious dog to guard her? He felt beside him on the path and his hand grasped a large stone, just small enough to hold. The dog came closer. ‘Come on, Jason,’ he whispered. ‘Come on, boy!’ The dog barked and made the last few yards in a dash. He swung the rock hard at its head, and the dog whimpered, then let out a low wail and collapsed.
‘Jason?’ the woman called from below. ‘Jason! Where are you?’ She sounded worried now. He could just about make her out in the faint light. She looked youngish, with long hair tied behind her neck in a ponytail, and she was wearing shorts and a T-shirt. She called for the dog again, then left the path and started climbing the hill through the shrubbery to the place she’d heard it wail.
Thirty yards. Twenty-five. Twenty. He could see the moonlight glint on her bracelet. Fifteen. He could hear her panting with effort. Ten. She ran the back of her hand over her brow and pushed back a stray tress of hair. ‘Jason?’ Five. He glanced around and listened. Nothing. So close to civilization, yet so far. There was nobody around but him and her.
Four. He held his breath. Three yards. She slipped back but managed to grasp a root and keep her balance. Two. He gripped the rock tight in his hand and felt it sticky and warm with the dog’s blood. She was almost there now. Just a few more steps. One. He gripped the rock tighter, raising his arm. Suddenly he felt himself filled with strange joy and he knew he was grinning like an idiot. So this was why he had come. He didn’t have a death wish, after all. What on earth had those fools who wrote the guidebooks meant? Of course it was safe after dark. Perfectly safe.
JUST MY LUCK
Los Angeles was the last place Walter Dimchuk would have chosen for the convention. A confirmed Torontonian, Walter had never been able to take California seriously. It seemed to him that the people there merely played at life under the palm trees and came up with loony-tune ideas.
Take the cuisine, if you could call it that: it was either Mexican, which gave Walter the runs, or so-called ‘Californian’: watercress, alfalfa sprouts and avocado with everything, even a burger. Faggot food, more like. He’d had a house salad just yesterday in which he hadn’t recognized one single ingredient. Cilantro, arugula, fresh basil, sun-dried tomatoes and goat’s cheese, the waiter had told him. With a dressing of tarragon, balsamic vinegar, cardamom oil and toasted pine nuts, for Christ’s sake. Just his luck. Couldn’t a person get a simple grilled cheese sandwich and a glass of milk in this state?
Smog, killer freeways, serial-killer bubblegum cards, earthquakes, Rodney King riots, more fruit loops per square mile than an asylum… the list went on. He hadn’t been happy about leaving Kate and Maria alone in the house either. They might not be as close a family as they had once been – what could you expect after thirty-five years of marriage and three children grown up to adults – but they still got on all right, mostly thanks to Maria, a late blessing when Kate was forty-five, and now a gawky thirteen-year-old.
The only good thing about the trip that Walter had been able to come up with on the plane over (Air Canada, three hours late, sweet Jesus, just Walter’s fucking luck) was a brief respite from a cool Toronto October.
But he hadn’t banked on the Santa Ana. When Toronto got hot, you sweated; here you dried to dust, dehydrated in seconds. He had once read a story about the hot, desert wind, the way it made meek wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. The writer was right: it did make you edgy and crazy. Walter felt as if he’d had a steel band around his forehead for two days. It was getting tighter.
Walter came out of his reverie. He was sitting in the hotel lobby taking a smoke break between sessions. Nobody seemed to smoke these days. In California it was hardly surprising: you couldn’t find many places where it was legal to do so. Damn government health warnings on everything now, even the wine. And he had seen the way the young hotshots with their white teeth turned up their noses when he lit up, even if they were sitting in a goddamn bar. Christ, who was this coming towards him, hand outstretched, teeth bared in a predatory smile? Should he remember? Awkwardly, he got to his feet.
‘Hi, good to see you,’ he said.
‘Good to see you!’ the stranger said. ‘It’s been years.’
‘Yeah.’ Walter scratched the side of his right eye and frowned. ‘Now where the hell was it…?’
‘Baltimore. Baltimore, ’seventy-nine. Jimmy Lavalli. Remember, we closed down that bar together?’
‘Yeah, of course. How you doing, Jimmy?’
And so it went on, the empty greetings, inane conversations, tales of triple bypasses, and all the time Walter knew, deep inside, that they were all out to get him, were all laughing at him. ‘Oh, old Wally Woodchuk, Wally Dump-truck, Wally Up-chuck, fucking dinosaur, sales have been down for years.’ No one had said it to his face, but they didn’t need to. Wally knew. At fifty-nine, he was too old for the pool supplies business. And it was obvious from the number of tanned young men around the convention that the company thought so too. You’d almost think the new breed were chosen because they’d look good sitting around a swimming pool, like the way auto manufacturers used curvaceous women to sell cars. Wally’s curves were in all the wrong places. Ungrateful bastards. He’d given his life to Hudson’s Pools and Supplies, and this was how they paid him back. He felt like that salesman in the play must have done, the one that guy who’d been married to Marilyn Monroe – not the baseball player, one of the others – had written for Dustin Hoffman.
He had heard the talk around the office, noticed the muted conversations and insincere greetings as he passed couples chatting in the corridor. They were putting him out to pasture. That was why they sent him to California. He wouldn’t be surprised if his office – if you could call a screened-off corner in an open plan an office – was cleaned out when he got back and someone else was sitting there in his place. Some tanned young asshole with white teeth and a wolfish smile. Maybe called Scott.
He got rid of Jimmy with promises to look him up if he was ever in Baltimore (not if he could help it!) and looked at his watch. Five o’clock. Shit. Time for another boring session, then up to get changed for the convention banquet. Tofu burgers again, most likely. Maybe grab a few minutes in between and call Kate…
Thank God that was over with, Walter thought, as he waved goodnight to the stragglers in the Pasadena Ballroom and headed for the elevator. What a fucking ordeal. And typical California, too – no smoking, not anywhere in the dining hall. Not tofu burgers, but almost as bad: Cornish game hen or some such skinny little bird stuffed with grapes and olives and jalapeño peppers, basted in lemon, garlic and the ubiquitous cilantro, of course. And they had to put him at the table with that loud-mouthed jerk Carson, from United. Just his luck. Still, Walter had kept his end up. He had been nice to the right people, managed a smile, passed his company card around, even if the recipients did absently slip it into their side pockets where they’d throw it out with the lint and the hotel matches.
A funny business these conventions, he thought as he went into his room. Hours of manic glad-handing, hurried conversations in lobbies and men’s rooms, talking business even with your dick in your hand, then when you finally got to be alone at the end of the night, all you felt was an incredible loneliness descend. At least Walter did.
So there you are in your strange hotel room alone miles from home after the party. Oh, the guys were setting up all-night poker sessions, planning trips to strip joints and bars, but Walter had had enough of all that, and of his colleagues. He wanted to be alone, but he didn’t want to feel alone.
It was the wind, he thought, that goddamn Santa Ana. And the air-conditioner had quit. Just his luck. He lay down on the bed with his hands behind his head and tried to relax. He couldn’t. He hadn’t drunk much. That was one thing he had under control these days. That was why he couldn’t for the life of him remember closing any bar with Jimmy Lavalli in Baltimore. If those tanned bastards knew what they looked like after they’d had a few too many… anyway, those days were past. As he lay there restless in the heat, feeling the band tighten around his head, the heartburn start to kick in, the resentment and fear churn inside him, he became aware of one feeling he would never have expected. God dammit, Walter Dimchuk was horny!
Not that it had never happened before, of course, but never with such a keen, urgent edge, not for a long time. He remembered the outing he’d had with Al and Larry yesterday afternoon. Given a couple of spare hours, they had driven to Santa Monica, walked on the pier, the boardwalk towards Venice. And now as he lay trying to find sleep, all Walter could find were the disturbing images of those girls in their bikinis, all that smooth, firm, tanned flesh.
He turned over. This was ridiculous. His lust felt so strong it was gripping his heart, making him squirm. The images churned in his mind, spurring him on. It was the damn heat, he knew it. Maybe if he could get out for a while. Tell someone at the desk to fix his air-conditioning while he took a little drive around town.
He sat up and slid his shoes back on. Yeah, that was the thing to do. Maybe drive to the ocean and cool off a little. That or a cold shower. He looked at his watch. Still only eleven o’clock. OK, car keys, jacket…
Such romantic-sounding street names they had: La Cienega, Sepulveda, La Brea. But they weren’t so fucking romantic when you were on them; they were either freeways or roads running past shitty little Spanish-style stucco houses with graffiti all over the stucco and postage-stamp gardens full of junk.
It was cool in the rental, but Walter still couldn’t shake the horniness. He’d pass a row of stores set back from the road and see a gang of kids there, girls in cut-off jeans and halter tops drinking Coke from the bottle, breasts jutting out. It was getting worse, as if the Santa Ana somehow slipped in through the air-conditioning and messed with his brain.
He found himself on Hollywood Boulevard. Walter loved old movies, the black and white kind, and the real stars they had back then like Cary Grant, Garbo, Bogie, Gable, Jimmy Stewart. Christ, he must have seen It’s a Wonderful Life about twenty times, and then they went and colourized the motherfucker. But the boulevard, with all those stars in the sidewalk, had gone to porn theatres, dirty bookstores with barred windows, hookers, pimps, muggers, losers.
He was stopped at a red light when he heard the tap on his window. If it had been a man, he would have burnt rubber driving away, even through a stop light. It wasn’t. Nervously, he rolled down the window.
‘Wann’ good time, mister? Wann’ have some fun?’
He looked at her. She must have been all of sixteen, going on forty, but she was pretty, a Latino with that honey skin and lustrous black hair. From what he could see of the rest of her, it looked pretty good too.
Walter hesitated. He had never been with a hooker before. He knew it happened at conventions, and somehow the guys thought it was all right, playing away from home like that. What the old lady doesn’t know won’t hurt her, hey Wally? But Walter had never done it. Now, though, with this girl hanging in his window practically spilling her tits onto his lap, with the lights changing, someone blowing a horn behind him and the desire sharp as knife cutting away inside him… Well, he opened the door.
The hooker got in and Walter drove off. She was wearing a short black skirt, way up around her thighs, and a tight pink halter made of material so thin he could see her nipples poking through. Her bare midriff was flat, with an outie belly button.
His mouth was dry. ‘Where?’ he croaked.
She directed him to a rundown hotel off Sunset, and he followed her up the stairs in a daze, aware only of the smell of disinfectant and rotting meat in the dim lobby and of the scuffed, stained linoleum on the stairs.
In the shaded light, the room didn’t look too bad. What did it matter, anyway? She took his money first, then Walter watched as she wriggled out of the halter and her honey breasts with the dark hard nipples quivered as they fell free. Grinning at him, the tip of her tongue between her small, white teeth, she unzipped her skirt and let it fall. She was wearing only white panties now. He could see the dark shadow of her pubic hair, and some of the hairs curled around the edges of the silky material.
‘You no undress?’ she asked. ‘Wann’ me take your clothes off?’
Walter nodded. Deftly, she took off his jacket, shirt, pants.
‘Oh, my, you so big,’ she said, touching his erection. ‘So big and hard. Safe,’ she said, reaching for a condom from her bag. ‘Always safe.’
Walter felt glad of that. AIDS had crossed his mind more than once between Hollywood Boulevard and the hotel, but if she always insisted on a condom she was bound to be clean, he thought. Desire seared like the sharp, hot desert wind inside him, driving him recklessly and thoughtlessly on.
She put her hands on his chest and pushed him gently down on the bed, then she straddled him, felt for his penis between her legs and thrust down on it slowly. Walter groaned and reached for her breasts as she moved back and forth on him. Dimly, he was aware of the bed springs creaking, but it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered but this moist, warm tightness all around him, sucking him in, hooking onto his desire and channelling it, concentrating it. He couldn’t have held back if he’d tried. It seemed like no time at all when everything burst and warmth flooded his veins. The woman moaned. He knew she was faking, but he didn’t care.
Then it was all over. Walter thanked her and hurried out to his car and his shame. At first, he sat there breathing hard and cranked up the air-conditioner. His stomach clenched, his loins felt dry and empty, but the steel band was still there, tightening around his skull. Lighting a cigarette, he turned onto the boulevard and headed back to the hotel.
They still hadn’t fixed the air-conditioning, he noticed, and when he phoned down to complain, the desk clerk said no one would be able to do it till the morning. Just his fucking luck. He should have felt better after sating his desire, he knew, but when he lay down and relived what he had just done he was appalled.
It was only midnight. No more than an hour ago he had been an innocent, a virtuous man. Now he had been tainted. How little time it took. And now he was worried, too. Condom or no condom, he could still get AIDS. That was a fact. The wind had done this to him, the wind and the palm trees and the hooker with the wonderful breasts and the sweet, warm place inside her. He’d been suckered. Jesus Christ, he wept, how could he face Kate and Maria again, after he’d been corrupted? That hooker hadn’t been much older than his daughter. The goddamn hot wind had made him fuck his own daughter. Even if they didn’t know, he knew. He couldn’t face them. His marriage was over, his family broken, all because of some two-bit whore who had tempted him and given him a disease. He ground his teeth. The heat seemed to bore into his bones the way the damp cold did in England that time he went with Kate, so many years ago. He was burning up. Maybe he was already showing symptoms of whatever disease that whore had given him. But that was ridiculous. Maybe he’d got flu. Or maybe it was the Santa Ana.
He turned over and tried to sleep, but the steel band tightened and the guilt hammered away at him, making sleep impossible. His life was ruined. All because of fucking California. He couldn’t think straight any more. Nothing but images shot through his mind, disjointed images: Kate crying; Maria slipping her panties off and rubbing her hand between her legs; the tanned assholes with the two-thousand-dollar smiles who were going to have his job. He couldn’t take it any more. He had to do something. Christ, they’d walked over old Walter Dimchuk for long enough, pushed him around, used him for a doormat, laughed behind his back. Now they’d corrupted his soul. Goddammit, enough was enough. His luck was going to change.
Hardly thinking, he got dressed quickly and picked up his car keys. At the last moment, just before the door shut behind him, he went back and picked up the ice pick from the dish by the television.
This time it was a Caucasian girl: blonde hair, clean-cut looks, but the same style, tight short skirt and halter top. And she wanted to make a quick phone call before she got into his car and directed him to a different hotel. It was a step up from the last one, he noticed, for Wally was noticing things clearly now, like the old-fashioned bell on the wooden desk, the discreet damask armchairs in the lobby, the wood-panelling look, the hovering scent of sandalwood. In fact, Walter felt strangely calm and in control now he knew what he was going to do. The steel band had loosened.
He smiled to himself as she went through her undressing routine, a bit more elaborate and drawn out than the last one, with slow gestures and teasing glances. He felt no desire now; it was all gone. He let her continue.
Outside, the hot wind huffed and puffed at the windows. The halter revealed white, droopy breasts, the kind that fold over like envelope flaps. Her eyes were unfocused and dull, as if she were on drugs. She had a large bruise on the outside of her right thigh and a little scar just under her navel. Appendicitis? he wondered. But the appendix was further to the right, wasn’t it? No matter. She stood naked before him finally, and he still felt no desire, only disgust and hatred. It wasn’t the same one who had ruined him, corrupted him, but they were all the same underneath. Whores. They all shared the same tainted, rotten soul. She would do. He let her unbutton his shirt, then he moved her gently away and asked her to lie face down on the bed.
‘Wanna come in from behind, hey, honey?’ she said, and grinned lasciviously, lying down and hugging the pillow.
‘No, that’s not it.’ Walter’s voice felt strange – dry and stuck deep in his chest. ‘That’s not it at all.’
‘S’OK by me.’
Walter slipped the ice pick from his jacket pocket and felt its point cool in his dry hand. He was just about to raise it above his head and plunge into the back of her neck when he heard a sound behind him.
Everything happened so fast. First, the door opened, and Walter saw a huge man blocking the exit, a giant with blond hair hanging over his massive shoulders, a tanned face carved of rock and veins thick as cables snaking down his thick arms. The man, he also noticed, was wearing a sleeveless white T-shirt and baggy, flowered pants held up by elastic.
Shit, Walter thought, glancing back at the girl for a second, then at his jacket over the back of a chair, they’re going to rip me off, rob me. That’s what the phone call was about. Just my fucking luck.
But what Walter didn’t really register until it was much too late was that when he turned towards the doorway, he had an ice pick still raised above his head, and the other man had a gun.
Walter never did get a chance to explain. The giant raised his gun and, without a word, fired two shots right into Walter Dimchuk’s angry, corrupt and unlucky heart.
AN INSPECTOR BANKS STORY
‘I’m not happy with it, laddie,’ said Dr Glendenning, shaking his head. ‘Not happy at all.’
‘So the super told me,’ said Banks. ‘What’s the problem?’
They sat at a dimpled, copper-topped table in the Queen’s Arms, Glendenning over a glass of Glenmorangie and Banks over a pint of Theakston’s. It was a bitterly cold evening in February. Banks was anxious to get home and take Sandra out to dinner as he had promised, but Dr Glendenning had asked for help, and a Home Office pathologist was too important to brush off.
‘One of these?’ Glendenning offered Banks a Senior Service.
Banks grimaced. ‘No. No thanks. I’ll stick with tipped. I’m trying to give up.’
‘Aye,’ said Glendenning, lighting up. ‘Me, too.’
‘So what’s the problem?’
‘She should never have died,’ the doctor said, ‘but that’s by the way. These things happen.’
‘Who shouldn’t have died?’
‘Oh, sorry. Forgot you didn’t know. Anna, Anna Childers is – was – her name. Admitted to the hospital this morning.’
‘Any reason to suspect a crime?’
‘No-o, not on the surface. That’s why I wanted an informal chat first.’ Rain lashed at the window; the buzz of conversation rose and fell around them.
‘What happened?’ Banks asked.
‘Her boyfriend brought her in at about ten o’clock this morning. He said she’d been up half the night vomiting. They thought it was gastric flu. Dr Gibson treated the symptoms as best he could, but…’ Glendenning shrugged.
‘Cause of death?’
‘Respiratory failure. If she hadn’t suffered from asthma, she might have had a chance. Dr Gibson managed at least to get the convulsions under control. But as for the cause of it all, don’t ask me. I’ve no idea yet. It could have been food poisoning. Or she could have taken something, a suicide attempt. You know how I hate guesswork.’ He looked at his watch and finished his drink. ‘Anyway, I’m off to do the post-mortem now. Should know a bit more after that.’
‘What do you want me to do?’
‘You’re the copper, laddie. I’ll not tell you your job. All I’ll say is the circumstances are suspicious enough to worry me. Maybe you could talk to the boyfriend?’
Banks took out his notebook. ‘What’s his name and address?’
Glendenning told him and left. Banks sighed and went to the telephone. Sandra wouldn’t like this at all.
Banks pulled up outside Anna Childers’s large semi in south Eastvale, near the big roundabout, and turned off the tape of Furtwängler conducting Beethoven’s Ninth. It was the 1951 live Bayreuth recording, mono but magnificent. The rain was still falling hard, and Banks fancied he could feel the sting of hail against his cheek as he dashed to the door, raincoat collar turned up.
The man who answered his ring, John Billings, looked awful. Normally, Banks guessed, he was a clean-cut, athletic type, at his best on a tennis court, perhaps, or a ski slope, but grief and lack of sleep had turned his skin pale and his features puffy. His shoulders slumped as Banks followed him into the living room, which looked like one of the package designs advertised in the Sunday colour supplements. Banks sat down in a damask-upholstered armchair and shivered.
‘I’m sorry,’ muttered Billings, turning on the gas fire. ‘I didn’t…’
‘It’s understandable,’ Banks said, leaning forward and rubbing his hands.
‘There’s nothing wrong, is there?’ Billings asked. ‘I mean, the police…?’
‘Nothing for you to worry about,’ Banks said. ‘Just some questions.’
‘Yes.’ Billings flopped onto the sofa and crossed his legs. ‘Of course.’
‘I’m sorry about what happened,’ Banks began. ‘I just want to get some idea of how. It all seems a bit of a mystery to the doctors.’
Billings sniffed. ‘You can say that again.’
‘When did Anna start feeling ill?’
‘About four in the morning. She complained of a headache, said she was feeling dizzy. Then she was up and down to the toilet the rest of the night. I thought it was a virus or something. I mean, you don’t go running off to the doctor’s over the least little thing, do you?’
‘But it got worse?’
‘Yes. It just wouldn’t stop.’ He held his face in his hands. Banks heard the hissing of the fire and the pellets of hail against the curtained window. Billings took a deep breath. ‘I’m sorry. At the end she was bringing up blood, shivering, and she had problems breathing. Then… well, you know what happened.’
‘How long had you known her?’
Banks repeated the question.
‘A couple of years in all, I suppose. But only as a business acquaintance at first. Anna’s a chartered accountant and I run a small consultancy firm. She did some auditing work for us.’
‘That’s how you met her?’
Banks looked around at the entertainment centre, the framed Van Gogh print. ‘Who owns the house?’
If Billings was surprised at the question, he didn’t show it. ‘Anna. It was only a temporary arrangement, my living here. I had a flat. I moved out. We were going to get married, buy a house together somewhere in the dale. Helmthorpe, perhaps.’
‘How long had you been going out together?’
‘Getting on all right?’
‘I told you. We were going to get married.’
‘You say you’d known her two years, but you’ve only been seeing each other six months. What took you so long? Was there someone else?’
‘For you or her?’
‘For Anna. Owen was still living with her until about seven months ago. Owen Doughton.’
‘And they split up?’
Billings shook his head. ‘No. It was all very civilized. They weren’t married. Anna said they just started going their different ways. They’d been together about five years and they felt they weren’t really going anywhere together, so they decided to separate.’
‘What did the two of you do last night?’
‘We went out for dinner at that Chinese place on Kendal Road. You don’t think it could have been that?’
‘I really can’t say. What did you eat?’
‘The usual. Egg rolls, chicken chow mein, a Szechuan prawn dish. We shared everything.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes. We usually do. Anna doesn’t really like spicy food, but she’ll have a little, just to keep me happy. I’m a curry nut, myself. The hotter the better. I thought at first maybe that was what made her sick, you know, if it wasn’t the flu, the chillies they use.’
‘Then you came straight home?’
‘No. We stopped for a drink at the Red Lion. Got home just after eleven.’
‘And Anna was feeling fine?’
‘What did you do when you got home?’
‘Nothing much, really. Pottered around a bit, then we went to bed.’
‘And that’s it?’
‘Yes. I must admit, I felt a little unwell myself during the night. I had a headache and an upset stomach, but Alka-Seltzer soon put it right. I just can’t believe it. I keep thinking she’ll walk in the door at any moment and say it was all a mistake.’
‘Did Anna have a nightcap or anything?’ Banks asked after a pause. ‘A cup of Horlicks, something like that?’
He shook his head. ‘She couldn’t stand Horlicks. No, neither of us had anything after the pub.’
Banks stood up. The room was warm now and his blotched raincoat had started to dry out. ‘Thanks very much,’ he said, offering his hand. ‘And again, I’m sorry for intruding on your grief.’
Billings shrugged. ‘What do you think it was?’
‘I don’t know yet. There is one more thing I have to ask. Please don’t take offence.’
Billings stared at him. ‘Go on.’
‘Was Anna upset about anything? Depressed?’
He shook his head vigorously. ‘No, no. Quite the opposite. She was happier than she’d ever been. She told me. I know what you’re getting at, Inspector – the doctor suggested the same thing – but you can forget it. Anna would never have tried to take her own life. She just wasn’t that kind of person. She was too full of life and energy.’
Banks nodded. If he’d had a pound for every time he’d heard that about a suicide he would be a rich man. ‘Fair enough,’ he said. ‘Just for the record, this Owen, where does he live?’
‘I’m afraid I don’t know. He works at that big garden centre just off North Market Street, over from the Town Hall.’
‘I know it. Thanks very much, Mr Billings.’
Banks pulled up his collar again and dashed for the car. The hail had turned to rain again. As he drove, windscreen wipers slapping, he pondered his talk with John Billings. The man seemed genuine in his grief, and he had no apparent motive for harming Anna Childers; but, again, all Banks had to go on was what he had been told. Then there was Owen Doughton, the ex live-in lover. Things might not have been as civilized as Anna Childers had made out.
The marvellous fourth movement of the symphony began just as Banks turned into his street. He sat in the parked car with the rain streaming down the windows and listened until Otto Edelmann came in with ‘O Freunde, nicht diese Töne…’, then turned off the tape and headed indoors. If he stayed out any longer he’d be there until the end of the symphony, and Sandra certainly wouldn’t appreciate that.
Banks found Owen Doughton hefting bags of fertilizer around in the garden centre early the next morning. Doughton was a short, rather hangdog-looking man in his early thirties with shaggy dark hair and a droopy moustache. The rain had stopped overnight, but a brisk, chill wind was fast bringing in more cloud, so Banks asked if they could talk inside. Doughton led him to a small, cluttered office that smelled faintly of paraffin. Doughton sat on the desk and Banks took the swivel chair.
‘I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you, Mr Doughton,’ Banks started.
Doughton studied his cracked, dirty fingernails. ‘I read about Anna in the paper this morning, if that’s what you mean,’ he said. ‘It’s terrible, a tragedy.’ He brushed back a thick lock of hair from his right eye.
‘Did you see much of her lately?’
‘Not a lot, no. Not since we split up. We’d have lunch occasionally if neither of us was too busy.’
‘So there were no hard feelings?’
‘No. Anna said it was just time to move on, that we’d outgrown each other. We both needed more space to grow.’
‘Was she right?’
He shrugged. ‘Seems so. But I still cared for her. I don’t want you to think I didn’t. I just can’t take this in.’ He looked Banks in the eye for the first time. ‘What’s wrong, anyway? Why are the police interested?’
‘It’s just routine,’ Banks said. ‘I don’t suppose you’d know anything about her state of mind recently?’
‘When did you see her last?’
‘A couple of weeks ago. She seemed fine, really.’
‘Did you know her new boyfriend?’
Doughton returned to study his fingernails. ‘No. She told me about him, of course, but we never met. Sounded like a nice bloke. Probably better for her than me. I wished her every happiness. Surely you can’t think she did this herself? Anna just wasn’t the type. She had too much to live for.’
‘Most likely food poisoning,’ Banks said, closing his notebook, ‘but we have to cover the possibilities. Nice talking to you, anyway. I don’t suppose I’ll be troubling you again.’
‘No problem,’ Doughton said, standing up.
Banks nodded and left.
‘If we split up,’ Banks mused aloud to Sandra over an early lunch in the new McDonald’s that day, ‘do you think you’d be upset?’
Sandra narrowed her eyes, clear blue under the dark brows and blonde hair. ‘Are you trying to tell me something, Alan? Is there something I should know?’
Banks paused, Big Mac halfway to his mouth, and laughed. ‘No. No, nothing like that. It’s purely hypothetical.’
‘Well, thank goodness for that.’ Sandra took a bite of her McChicken sandwich and pulled a face. ‘Yuck. Have you really developed a taste for this stuff?’
Banks nodded. ‘It’s all right, really. Full of nutrition.’ And he took a big bite as if to prove it.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘you certainly know how to show a woman a good time, I’ll say that for you. And what on earth are you talking about?’
‘Splitting up. It’s just something that puzzles me, that’s all.’
‘I’ve been married to you half my life,’ Sandra said. ‘Twenty years. Of course I’d be bloody upset if we split up.’
‘You can’t see us just going our separate ways, growing apart, needing more space?’
‘Alan, what’s got into you? Have you been reading those self-help books?’ She looked around the place again, taking in the plastic decor. ‘I’m getting worried about you.’
‘Well, don’t. It’s simple really. I know twenty years hardly compares with five, but do you believe people can just disentangle their lives from one another and carry on with someone new as if nothing had happened?’
‘Maybe they could’ve done in 1967,’ Sandra answered. ‘And maybe some people still can, but I think it cuts a lot deeper than that, no matter what anyone says.’
‘Anna said it was fine,’ Banks muttered, almost to himself. ‘But Anna’s dead.’
‘Is this that investigation you’re doing for Dr Glendenning, the reason you stood me up last night?’
‘I didn’t stand you up. I phoned to apologize. But, yes. I’ve got a nagging feeling about it. Something’s not quite right.’
‘What do you mean? You think she was poisoned or something?’
‘It’s possible, but I can’t prove it. I can’t even figure out how.’
‘Then maybe you’re wrong.’
‘Huh.’ Banks chomped on his Big Mac again. ‘Wouldn’t be the first time, would it?’ He explained about his talks with John Billings and Owen Doughton. Sandra thought for a moment, sipping her Coke through a straw and picking at her chips, sandwich abandoned on her tray. ‘Sounds like a determined woman, this Anna. I suppose it’s possible she just made a seamless transition from one to the other, but I’d bet there’s a lot more to it than that. I’d have a word with both of them again, if I were you.’
‘Mmm,’ said Banks. ‘Thought you’d say that. Fancy a sweet?’
‘The tests are going to take time,’ Glendenning said over the phone, ‘but from what I could see there’s severe damage to the liver, kidneys, heart and lungs, not to mention the central nervous system.’
‘Could it be food poisoning?’ Banks asked.
‘It certainly looks like some kind of poisoning. A healthy person doesn’t usually die just like that. I suppose at a pinch it could be botulism,’ Glendenning said. ‘Certainly some of the symptoms match. I’ll get the Board of Trade to check out that Chinese restaurant.’
‘Any other possibilities?’
‘Too damned many,’ Glendenning growled. ‘That’s the problem. There’s enough nasty stuff around to make you that ill if you’re unlucky enough to swallow it: household cleaners, pesticides, industrial chemicals. The list goes on. That’s why we’ll have to wait for the test results.’ And he hung up.
Cantankerous old bugger, Banks thought with a smile. How Glendenning hated being pinned down. The problem was, though, if someone – Owen, John or some undiscovered enemy – had poisoned Anna, how had he done it? John Billings could have doctored her food at the Chinese restaurant, or her drink in the pub, or perhaps there was something she had eaten that he had simply failed to mention. He certainly had the best opportunity.
But John Billings seemed the most unlikely suspect: he loved the woman; they were going to get married. Or so he said. Anna Childers was quite well off and upwardly mobile, but it was unlikely that Billings stood to gain, or even needed to gain, financially from her death. It was worth looking into, though. She had only been thirty, but she might have made a will in his favour. And Billings’s consultancy could do with a bit of scrutiny.
Money wouldn’t be a motive with Owen Doughton, though. According to both the late Anna and to Owen himself, they had parted without rancour, each content to get on with life. Again, it might be worth asking a few of their friends and acquaintances if they had reason to think any differently. Doughton had seemed gentle, reserved, a private person, but who could tell what went on in his mind? Banks walked down the corridor to see if either Detective Constable Susan Gay or Detective Sergeant Philip Richmond was free for an hour or two.
Two hours later, DC Susan Gay sat in front of Banks’s desk, smoothed her grey skirt over her lap and opened her notebook. As usual, Banks thought, she was well dressed: tight blonde curls; just enough make-up; the silver hoop earrings; black scoop-necked top; and a mere whiff of Miss Dior cutting the stale cigarette smoke in his office.
‘There’s not much, I’m afraid,’ Susan started, glancing up from her notes. ‘No will, as far as I can discover, but she did alter the beneficiary on her insurance policy a month ago.’
‘In whose benefit?’
‘John Billings. Apparently she has no family.’
Banks raised his eyebrows. ‘Who was the previous beneficiary?’
‘Odd that, isn’t it?’ Banks speculated aloud. ‘A woman who changes her insurance policy with her boyfriends.’
‘Well she wouldn’t want it to go to the government, would she?’ Susan said. ‘And I don’t suppose she’d want to make her ex rich either.’
‘True,’ said Banks. ‘It’s often easier to keep a policy going than let it lapse and apply all over again later. And they were going to get married. But why change it so soon? How much is it for?’
‘Owen Doughton’s poor as a church mouse,’ Susan went on, ‘but he doesn’t stand to gain anything.’
‘But did he know that? I doubt Anna Childers would have told him. What about Billings?’
Susan gnawed the tip of her Biro and hesitated. ‘Pretty well off,’ she said. ‘Bit of an up-and-comer in the consultancy world. You can see why a woman like Anna Childers would want to attach herself to him.’
‘He’s going places, of course. Expensive places.’
‘I see,’ said Banks. ‘And you think she was a gold-digger?’
Susan flushed. ‘Not necessarily. She just knew what side her bread was buttered on, that’s all. Same as with a lot of new businesses, though, Billings has a bit of a cashflow problem.’
‘Hmm. Any gossip on the split up?’
‘Not much. I had a chat with a couple of locals in the Red Lion. Anna Childers always seemed cheerful enough, but she was a tough nut to crack, they said, strong protective shell.’
‘What about Doughton?’
‘He doesn’t seem to have many friends. His boss says he’s noticed no real changes, but he says Owen keeps to himself, always did. I’m sorry. It’s not much help.’
‘Never mind,’ Banks said. ‘Look, I’ve got a couple of things to do. Can you find Phil for me?’
‘Did you know that Anna had an insurance policy?’ Banks asked Owen Doughton. They stood in the cold yard while Doughton stacked some bags of peat moss.
Doughton stood up and rubbed the small of his back. ‘Aye,’ he said. ‘What of it?’
‘Did you know how much it was for?’
He shook his head.
‘All right,’ Banks said. ‘Did Anna tell you she’d changed the beneficiary, named John Billings instead of you?’
Doughton paused with his mouth open. ‘No,’ he said. ‘No, she didn’t.’
‘So you know now that you stand to gain nothing, that it all goes to John?’
Doughton’s face darkened, then he looked away and Banks swore he could hear a strangled laugh or cry. ‘I don’t believe this,’ Doughton said, facing him again. ‘I can’t believe I’m hearing this. You think I might have killed Anna? And for money? This is insane. Look, go away, please. I don’t have to talk to you, do I?’
‘No,’ said Banks.
‘Well, bugger off then. I’ve got work to do. But remember one thing.’
‘I loved her. I loved Anna.’
John Billings looked even more wretched than he had the day before. His eyes were bloodshot, underlined by black smudges, and he hadn’t shaved. Banks could smell alcohol on his breath. A suitcase stood in the hallway.
‘Where are you going, John?’ Banks asked.
‘I can’t stay here, can I? I mean, it’s not my house, for a start, and… the memories.’
‘Where are you going?’
He picked up the case. ‘I don’t know. Just away from here, that’s all.’
‘I don’t think so.’ Gently, Banks took the case from him and set it down. ‘We haven’t got to the bottom of this yet.’
‘What do you mean? For Christ’s sake, man!’
‘You’d better come with me, John.’
‘Police station. We’ll have a chat there.’
Billings stared angrily at him, then seemed to fold. ‘Oh, what the hell,’ he muttered. ‘What does it matter?’ And he picked his coat off the rack and followed Banks. He didn’t see DS Philip Richmond watching from the window of the cafe over the road.
It was after seven o’clock, dark, cold and windy outside. Banks decided to wait in the bedroom, on the chair wedged in the corner between the wardrobe and the dressing table. From there, with the door open, he could see the staircase, and he would be able to hear any sounds in the house.
He had just managed to get the item on the local news show at six o’clock, only minutes after Dr Glendenning had phoned with more detailed information: ‘Poison suspected in death of Eastvale woman. Police baffled. No suspects as yet.’ Of course, the killer might not have seen it, or might have already covered his tracks, but if Anna Childers had been poisoned, and Glendenning now seemed certain she had, then the answer had to be here.
Given possible reaction times, Glendenning had said in his late afternoon phone call, there was little chance she could have taken the poison into her system before eight o’clock the previous evening, at which time she had gone out to dine with John Billings.
The house was dark and silent save for the ticking of a clock on the bedside table and the howling wind rattling the window. Eight o’clock. Nine. Nothing happened except Banks got cramp in his left calf. He massaged it, then stood up at regular intervals and stretched. He thought of DS Richmond down the street in the unmarked car. Between them, they’d be sure to catch anyone who came.
Finally, close to ten o’clock, he heard it, a scraping at the lock on the front door. He drew himself deep into the chair, melted into the darkness and held his breath. The door opened and closed softly. He could see a torch beam sweeping the wall by the staircase, coming closer. The intruder was coming straight up the stairs. Damn! Banks hadn’t expected that. He wanted whoever it was to lead him to the poison, not walk right into him.
He sat rigid in the chair as the beam played over the threshold of the bedroom, mercifully not falling on him in his dark corner. The intruder didn’t hesitate. He walked around the bed, within inches of Banks’s feet, and over to the bedside table. Shining his torch, he opened the top drawer and picked something up. At that moment Banks turned on the light. The figure turned sharply, then froze.
‘Hello, Owen,’ said Banks. ‘What brings you here?’
‘If it was anyone, it had to be either you or him, John,’ Banks said later back in his office, while Owen Doughton was being charged downstairs. ‘Only the two of you were intimate enough with Anna to know her habits, her routines. And Owen had lived with her until quite recently. There was a chance he still had a key.’
John Billings shook his head. ‘I thought you were arresting me.’
‘It was touch and go, I won’t deny it. But at least I thought I’d give you a chance, the benefit of the doubt.’
‘And if your trap hadn’t worked?’
Banks shrugged. ‘Down to you, I suppose. The poison could have been anywhere, in anything. Toothpaste, for example. I knew if it wasn’t you, and the killer heard the news, he’d try to destroy any remaining evidence. He wouldn’t have had a chance to do so yet because you were in the house.’
‘But I was at the hospital nearly all yesterday.’
‘Too soon. He had no idea anything had happened at that time. This wasn’t a carefully calculated plan.’
Banks shook his head. ‘That I can’t say for certain. He’s a sick man, an obsessed man. It’s my guess it was his warped form of revenge. It had been eating away at him for some time. Anna didn’t treat him very well, John. She didn’t really stop to take his feelings into account when she kicked him out and took up with you. She just assumed he would understand, like he always had, because he loved her and had her welfare at heart. He was deeply hurt, but he wasn’t the kind to make a fuss or let his feelings show. He kept it all bottled up.’
‘She could be a bit blinkered, could Anna,’ John mumbled. ‘She was a very focused woman.’
‘Yes. And I’m sure Doughton felt humiliated when she dumped him and turned to you. After all, he didn’t have much of a financial future, unlike you.’
‘But it wasn’t that, not with Anna,’ Billings protested. ‘We just had so much in common. Goals, tastes, ambitions. She and Owen had nothing in common any more.’
‘You’re probably right,’ Banks said. ‘Anyway, when she told him a couple of weeks ago that she was going to get married to you, it was the last straw. He said she expected him to be happy for her.’
‘But why did he keep on seeing her if it hurt him so much?’
‘He was still in love with her. It was better seeing her, even under those circumstances, than not at all.’
‘Then why kill her?’
Banks looked at Billings. ‘Love and hate, John,’ he said. ‘They’re not so far apart. Besides, he doesn’t believe he did kill her, that wasn’t really his intention at all.’
‘I don’t understand. You said he did. How did he do it?’
Banks paused and lit a cigarette. This wasn’t going to be easy. Rain blew against the window and a draught rattled the Venetian blind.
‘How?’ Billings repeated.
Banks looked at his calendar, trying to put off the moment; it showed a woodland scene, snowdrops blooming near The Strid at Bolton Abbey. He cleared his throat. ‘Owen came to the house while you were both out,’ Banks began. ‘He brought a syringe loaded with a strong pesticide he got from the garden centre. Remember, he knew Anna intimately. Did you and Anna make love that night, John?’
Billings reddened. ‘For Christ’s sake-’
‘I’m not asking whether the earth moved, I’m just asking if you did. Believe me, it’s relevant.’
‘All right,’ said Billings after a pause. ‘Yes, we did, as a matter of fact.’
‘Owen knew Anna well enough to know that she was frightened of getting pregnant,’ Banks went on, ‘but she wouldn’t take the pill because of the side effects. He knew she insisted on condoms, and he knew she liked to make love in the dark. It was easy enough to insert the needle into a couple of packages and squirt in some pesticide. Not much, but it’s very powerful stuff, colourless and odourless, so even an infinitesimal coating would have some effect. The condoms were lubricated, so they’d feel oily anyway, and nobody would notice a tiny pinprick in the package. You absorbed a little into your system, too, and that’s why you felt ill. You see, it’s easily absorbed through skin or membranes. But Anna got the lion’s share. Dr Glendenning would have found out eventually how the poison was administered from tissue samples, but further tests would have taken time. Owen could easily have nipped back to the house and removed the evidence by then. Or we might have decided that you had better access to the method.’
Billings paled. ‘You mean it could just as easily have been me either killed or arrested for murder?’
Banks shrugged. ‘It could have turned out any way, really. There was no way of knowing accurately what would happen, and certainly there was a chance that either you would die or the blame would fall on you. As it turned out, Anna absorbed most of it, and she had asthma. In Owen’s twisted mind, he wanted your love-making to make you sick. That was his statement, if you like, after suffering so long in silence, pretending it was OK that Anna had moved on. But that’s all. It was a sick joke, if you like. We found three poisoned condoms. Certainly if one hadn’t worked the way it did, there could have been a build up of the pesticide, causing chronic problems. I did read about a case once,’ Banks went on, ‘where a man married rich women and murdered them for their money by putting arsenic on his condoms, but they were made of goatskin back then. Besides, he was French. I’ve never come across a case quite as strange as this.’
Billings shook his head slowly. ‘Can I go now?’ he asked.
‘I don’t know. A hotel, perhaps, until…’
Banks nodded and stood up. As they went down the stairs, they came face to face with Owen Doughton, handcuffed to a large constable. Billings stiffened. Doughton glared at him and spoke to Banks. ‘He’s the one who killed her,’ he said, with a toss of his head. ‘He’s the one you should be arresting.’ Then he looked directly at Billings. ‘You’re going to have to live with that, you know, Mr Moneybags. It was you who killed her. Hear that, Mr Yuppie Moneybags? You killed her. You killed Anna.’
Banks couldn’t tell whether he was laughing or crying as the constable led him down to the cells.
MISSING IN ACTION
People go missing all the time in war, of course, but not usually nine-year-old boys. Besides, the war had hardly begun. It was only 20 September 1939 when Mary Critchley came hammering on my door at about three o’clock, interrupting my afternoon nap.
It was a Wednesday, and normally I would have been teaching the fifth-formers Shakespeare at Silverhill Grammar School (a thankless task if ever there was one), but the Ministry had just got around to constructing airraid shelters there, so the school was closed for the week. We didn’t even know if it was going to reopen because the plan was to evacuate all the children to safer areas in the countryside. Now I would be among the first to admit that a teacher’s highest aspiration is a school without pupils, but in the meantime the government, in its eternal wisdom, put us redundant teachers to such complex, intellectual tasks as preparing ration cards for the Ministry of Food. (After all, they knew what was coming.)
All this was just a small part of the chaos that seemed to reign at that time. Not the chaos of war, the kind I remembered from the trenches at Ypres in 1917, but the chaos of government bureaucracies trying to organize the country for war.
Anyway, I was fortunate enough to become a Special Constable, which is a rather grandiose title for a sort of part-time dogsbody, and that was why Mary Critchley came running to me. That and what little reputation I had for solving people’s problems.
‘Mr Bashcombe! Mr Bashcombe!’ she cried. ‘It’s our Johnny. He’s gone missing. You musht help.’
My name is actually Bascombe, Frank Bascombe, but Mary Critchley has a slight speech impediment, so I forgave her the mispronunciation. Still, with half the city’s children running wild in the streets and the other half standing on crowded station platforms clutching their Mickey Mouse gas-masks in little cardboard boxes, ready to be herded into trains bound for such nearby country havens as Graythorpe, Kilsden and Acksham, I thought perhaps she was overreacting a tad, and I can’t say I welcomed her arrival after only about twenty of my allotted forty winks.
‘He’s probably out playing with his mates,’ I told her.
‘Not my Johnny,’ she said, wiping the tears from her eyes. ‘Not since… you know…’
I knew. Mr Critchley, Ted to his friends, had been a Royal Navy man since well before the war. He had also been unfortunate enough to serve on the aircraft carrier Courageous, which had been sunk by a German U-boat off the south-west coast of Ireland just three days before. Over five hundred men had been lost, including Ted Critchley. Of course, no body had been found, and probably never would be, so he was only officially ‘missing in action’.
I also knew young Johnny Critchley, and thought him to be a serious boy, a bit too imaginative and innocent for his own good. (Well, many are at that age, aren’t they, before the world grabs them by the balls and shakes some reality into them.) Johnny trusted everyone, even strangers.
‘Johnny’s not been in much of a mood for playing with his mates sinsh we got the news about Ted’s ship,’ Mary Critchley went on.
I could understand that well enough – young Johnny was an only child, and he always did worship his father – but I still didn’t see what I could do about it. ‘Have you asked around?’
‘What do you think I’ve been doing sinsh he didn’t come home at twelve o’clock like he was supposed to? I’ve ashked everyone in the street. Last time he was seen he was down by the canal at about eleven o’clock. Maurice Richards saw him. What can I do, Mr Bashcombe? Firsht Ted, and now… now my Johnny!’ She burst into tears.
After I had managed to calm her down, I sighed and told her I would look for Johnny myself. There certainly wasn’t much hope of my getting the other twenty winks now.
It was a glorious day, so warm and sunny you would hardly believe there was a war on. The late afternoon sunshine made even our narrow streets of cramped brick terraced houses look attractive. As the shadows lengthened, the light turned to molten gold. First, I scoured the local rec, where the children played cricket and football, and the dogs ran wild. Some soldiers were busy digging trenches for air-raid shelters. Just the sight of those long, dark grooves in the earth gave me the shivers. Behind the trenches, barrage balloons pulled at their moorings on the breeze like playful porpoises, orange and pink in the sun. I asked the soldiers, but they hadn’t seen Johnny. Nor had any of the other lads.
After the rec, I headed for the derelict houses on Gallipoli Street. The landlord had let them go to rack and ruin two years ago, and they were quite uninhabitable, not even fit for billeting soldiers. They were also dangerous and should have been pulled down, but I think the old skinflint was hoping a bomb would hit them so he could claim insurance or compensation from the government. The doors and windows had been boarded up, but children are resourceful, and it wasn’t difficult even for me to remove a couple of loose sheets of plywood and make my way inside. I wished I had my torch, but I had to make do with what little light slipped through the holes. Every time I moved, my feet stirred up clouds of dust, which did my poor lungs no good at all.
I thought Johnny might have fallen or got trapped in one of the houses. The staircases were rotten, and more than one lad had fallen through on his way up. The floors weren’t much better, either, and one of the fourth-formers at Silverhill had needed more than fifteen stitches a couple of weeks before when one of his legs went right through the rotten wood and the splinters gouged his flesh.
I searched as best I could in the poor light, and I called out Johnny’s name, but no answer came. Before I left, I stood silently and listened for any traces of harsh breathing or whimpering.
After three hours of searching the neighbourhood, I’d had no luck at all. Blackout time was seven forty-five p.m., so I still had about an hour and a half left, but if Johnny wasn’t in any of the local children’s usual haunts, I was at a loss as to where to look. I talked to the other boys I met here and there, but none of his friends had seen him since the family got the news of Ted’s death. Little Johnny Critchley, it seemed, had vanished into thin air.
At half past six, I called on Maurice Richards, grateful for his offer of a cup of tea and the chance to rest my aching feet. Maurice and I went back a long time. We had both survived the first war, Maurice with the loss of an arm, and me with permanent facial scarring and a racking cough that comes and goes, thanks to the mustard gas leaking through my mask at the Third Battle of Ypres. We never talked about the war, but it was there, we both knew, an invisible bond tying us close together while at the same time excluding us from so much other, normal human intercourse. Not many had seen the things we had, and thank God for that.
Maurice lit up a Passing Cloud one-handed, then he poured the tea. The seven o’clock news came on the radio, some rot about us vowing to keep fighting until we’d vanquished the foe. It was still very much a war of words at that time, and the more rhetorical the language sounded, the better the politicians thought they were doing. There had been a couple of minor air skirmishes, and the sinking of the Courageous, of course, but all the action was taking place in Poland, which seemed as remote as the moon to most people. Some clever buggers had already started calling it the ‘Bore War’.
‘Did you hear Tommy Handley last night, Frank?’ Maurice asked.
I shook my head. There’d been a lot of hoopla about Tommy Handley’s new radio programme, It’s That Man Again, or ITMA, as people called it. I was never a fan. Call me a snob, but when evening falls I’m far happier curling up with a good book or an interesting talk on the radio than listening to Tommy Handley.
‘Talk about laugh,’ said Maurice. ‘They had this one sketch about the Ministry of Aggravation and the Office of Twerps. I nearly died.’
I smiled. ‘Not far from the truth,’ I said. There were now so many of these obscure ministries, boards and departments involved in so many absurd pursuits – all for the common good, of course – that I had been thinking of writing a dystopian satire. I proposed to set it in the near future, which would merely be a thinly disguised version of the present. So far, all I had was a great idea for the title: I would reverse the last two numbers in the current year, so instead of 1939, I’d call it 1993. (Well, I thought it was a good idea!)
‘Look, Maurice,’ I said, ‘it’s about young Johnny Critchley. His mother tells me you were the last person to see him.’
‘Oh, aye,’ Maurice said. ‘She were round asking about him not long ago. Still not turned up?’
‘Cause for concern, then.’
‘I’m beginning to think so. What was he doing when you saw him?’
‘Just walking down by the canal, by old Woodruff’s scrapyard.’
‘Was he alone?’
‘Did he say anything.’
‘You didn’t say anything to him?’
‘No cause to. He seemed preoccupied, just staring in the water, like, hands in his pockets. I’ve heard what happened to his dad. A lad has to do his grieving.’
‘Too true. Did you see anyone else? Anything suspicious?’
‘No, nothing. Just a minute, though…’
‘Oh, it’s probably nothing, but just after I saw Johnny, when I was crossing the bridge, I bumped into Colin Gormond, you know, that chap who’s a bit… you know.’
Colin Gormond. I knew him all right. And that wasn’t good news; it wasn’t good news at all.
Of all the policemen they could have sent, they had to send Detective bloody Sergeant Longbottom, a big, brutish-looking fellow with a pronounced limp and a Cro-Magnon brow. Longbottom was thick as two short planks. I doubt he could have found his own arse even if someone nailed a sign on it, or detected his way out of an Anderson shelter if it were in his own back yard. But that’s the calibre of men this wretched war has left us with at home. Along with good ones like me, of course.
DS Longbottom wore a shiny brown suit and a Silverhill Grammar School tie. I wondered where he’d got it from; he probably stole it from a schoolboy he caught nicking sweets from the corner shop. He kept tugging at his collar with his pink sausage fingers as we talked in Mary Critchley’s living room. His face was flushed with the heat, and sweat gathered on his thick eyebrows and trickled down the sides of his neck.
‘So he’s been missing since lunchtime, has he?’ DS Longbottom repeated.
Mary Critchley nodded. ‘He went out at about half past ten, just for a walk like. Said he’d be back at twelve. When it got to three… well, I went to see Mr Bash-combe here.’
DS Longbottom curled his lip at me and grunted. ‘Mr Bascombe. Special Constable. I suppose you realize that gives you no real police powers, don’t you?’
‘As a matter of fact,’ I said, ‘I thought it made me your superior. After all, you’re not a special sergeant, are you?’
He looked at me as if he wanted to hit me. Perhaps he would have done if Mary Critchley hadn’t been in the room. ‘Enough of your lip. Just answer my questions.’
‘You say you looked all over for this lad?’
‘All his usual haunts.’
‘And you found no trace of him?’
‘If I had, do you think we’d have sent for you?’
‘I warned you. Cut the lip and answer the questions. This, what’s his name, Maurice Richards, was he the last person to see the lad?’
‘Johnny’s his name. And yes is the answer, as far as we know.’ I paused. He’d have to know eventually, and if I didn’t tell him, Maurice would. The longer we delayed, the worse it would be in the long run. ‘There was someone else in the area at the time. A man called Colin Gormond.’
Mary Critchley gave a sharp gasp. DS Longbottom frowned, licked the tip of his pencil and scribbled something in his notebook. ‘I’ll have to have a word with him,’ he said. Then he turned to her. ‘Recognize the name, do you, ma’m?’
‘I know Colin,’ I answered, perhaps a bit too quickly.
DS Longbottom stared at Mary Critchley, whose lower lip started quivering, then turned slowly back to me. ‘Tell me about him.’
I sighed. Colin Gormond was an oddball. Some people said he was a bit slow, but I’d never seen any real evidence of that. He lived alone and he didn’t have much to do with the locals; that was enough evidence against him for some people.
And then there were the children.
For some reason, Colin preferred the company of the local lads to that of the rest of us adults. To be quite honest, I can’t say I blame him, but in a situation like this it’s bound to look suspicious. Especially if the investigating officer is someone with the sensitivity and understanding of a DS Longbottom.
Colin would take them trainspotting on the hill overlooking the main line, for example, or he’d play cricket with them on the rec, or hand out conkers when the season came. He sometimes bought them sweets and ice creams, even gave them books, marbles and comics.
To my knowledge, Colin Gormond had never once put a foot out of line, never laid so much as a finger on any of the lads, either in anger or in friendship. There had, however, been one or two mutterings from some parents – most notably from Jack Blackwell, father of one of Johnny’s pals, Nick – that it somehow wasn’t right, that it was unnatural for a man who must be in his late thirties or early forties to spend so much time playing with young children. There must be something not quite right in his head, he must be up to something, Jack Blackwell hinted, and as usual when someone starts a vicious rumour, there is no shortage of willing believers. Such a reaction was only to be expected from someone, of course, but I knew it wouldn’t go down well with DS Longbottom. I don’t know why, but I felt a strange need to protect Colin.
‘Colin’s a local,’ I explained. ‘Lived around here for years. He plays with the lads a bit. Most of them like him. He seems a harmless sort of fellow.’
‘How old is he?’
I shrugged. ‘Hard to say. About forty, perhaps.’
DS Longbottom raised a thick eyebrow. ‘About forty and he plays with the kiddies, you say?’
‘Sometimes. Like a schoolteacher, or a youth club leader.’
‘Is he a schoolteacher?’
‘Is he a youth club leader?’
‘No. Look, what I meant-’
‘I know exactly what you meant, Mr Bascombe. Now you just listen to what I mean. What we’ve got here is an older man who’s known to hang around with young children, and he’s been placed near the scene where a young child has gone missing. Now, don’t you think that’s just a wee bit suspicious?’
Mary Critchley let out a great wail and started crying again. DS Longbottom ignored her. Instead, he concentrated all his venom on me, the softie, the liberal, the defender of child molesters. ‘What do you have to say about that, Mr Special Constable Bascombe?’
‘Only that Colin was a friend to the children and that he had no reason to harm anyone.’
‘Friend,’ DS Longbottom sneered, struggling to his feet. ‘We can only be thankful you’re not regular police, Mr Bascombe,’ he said, nodding to himself, in acknowledgement of his own wisdom. ‘That we can.’
‘So what are you going to do?’ I asked.
DS Longbottom looked at his watch and frowned. Either he was trying to work out what it meant when the little hand and the big hand were in the positions they were in, or he was squinting because of poor eyesight. ‘I’ll have a word with this here Colin Gormond. Other than that, there’s not much more we can do tonight. First thing tomorrow morning, we’ll drag the canal.’ He got to the door, turned, pointed to the windows and said, ‘And don’t forget to put up your blackout curtains, ma’m, or you’ll have the ARP man to answer to.’
Mary Critchley burst into floods of tears again.
Even the soft dawn light could do nothing for the canal. It oozed through the city like an open sewer, oil slicks shimmering like rainbows in the sun, brown water dotted with industrial scum and suds, bits of driftwood and paper wrappings floating along with them. On one side was Ezekiel Woodruff’s scrapyard. Old Woodruff was a bit of an eccentric. He used to come around the streets with his horse and cart, yelling, ‘Any old iron,’ but now the government had other uses for scrap metal – supposedly to be used in aircraft manufacture – poor old Woodruff didn’t have a way to make his living any more. He’d already sent old Nell the carthorse to the knacker’s yard, where she was probably doing her bit for the war effort by helping to make the glue to stick the aircraft together. Old mangles and bits of broken furniture stuck up from the ruins of the scrapyard like shattered artillery after a battle.
On the other side, the bank rose steeply towards the backs of the houses on Canal Road, and the people who lived there seemed to regard it as their personal tip. Flies and wasps buzzed around old hessian sacks and paper bags full of God knew what. A couple of buckled bicycle tyres and a wheel-less pram completed the picture.
I stood and watched as Longbottom supervised the dragging, a slow and laborious process that seemed to be sucking all manner of unwholesome objects to the surface – except Johnny Critchley’s body.
I felt tense. At any moment I half expected the cry to come from one of the policemen in the boats that they had found him, half expected to see the small, pathetic bundle bob above the water’s surface. I didn’t think Colin Gormond had done anything to Johnny – nor Maurice, though DS Longbottom had seemed suspicious of him too – but I did think that, given how upset he was, Johnny might just have jumped in. He never struck me as the suicidal type, but I have no idea whether suicide enters the minds of nine-year-olds. All I knew was that he was upset about his father, and he was last seen skulking by the canal.
So I stood around with DS Longbottom and the rest as the day grew warmer, and there was still no sign of Johnny. After about three hours, the police gave up and went for bacon and eggs at Betty’s Cafe over on Chadwick Road. They didn’t invite me, and I was grateful to be spared both the unpleasant food and company. I stood and stared into the greasy water a while longer, unsure whether it was a good sign or not that Johnny wasn’t in the canal, then I decided to go and have a chat with Colin Gormond.
‘What is it, Colin?’ I asked him gently. ‘Come on. You can tell me.’
But Colin continued to stand with his back turned to me in the dark corner of his cramped living room, hands to his face, making eerie snuffling sounds, shaking his head. It was bright daylight outside, but the blackout curtains were still drawn tightly, and not a chink of light crept between their edges. I had already tried the light switch, but either Colin had removed the bulb or he didn’t have one.
‘Come on, Colin. This is silly. You know me. I’m Mr Bascombe. I won’t hurt you. Tell me what happened.’
Finally Colin turned silent and came out of his corner with his funny, shuffling way of walking. Someone said he had a club foot, and someone else said he’d had a lot of operations on his feet when he was a young lad, but nobody knew for certain why he walked the way he did. When he sat down and lit a cigarette, the match light illuminated his large nose, shiny forehead and watery blue eyes. He used the same match to light a candle on the table beside him, and then I saw them: the black eye, the bruise on his left cheek. DS Longbottom. The bastard.
‘Did you say anything to him?’ I asked, anxious that DS Longbottom might have beaten a confession out of Colin, without even thinking that Colin probably wouldn’t still be at home if that were the case.
He shook his head mournfully. ‘Nothing, Mr Bascombe. Honest. There was nothing I could tell him.’
‘Did you see Johnny Critchley yesterday, Colin?’
‘Down by the canal.’
‘What was he doing?’
‘Just standing there chucking stones in the water.’
‘Did you talk to him?’
Colin paused and turned away before answering, ‘No.’
I had a brief coughing spell, his cigarette smoke working on my gassed lungs. When it cleared up, I said, ‘Colin, there’s something you’re not telling me, isn’t there? You’d better tell me. You know I won’t hurt you, and I just might be the only person who can help you.’
He looked at me, pale eyes imploring. ‘I only called out to him, from the bridge, like, didn’t I?’
‘What happened next?’
‘Nothing. I swear it.’
‘Did he answer?’
‘No. He just looked my way and shook his head. I could tell then that he didn’t want to play. He seemed sad.’
‘He’d just heard his dad’s been killed.’
Colin’s already watery eyes brimmed with tears. ‘Poor lad.’
I nodded. For all I knew, Colin might have been thinking about his dad, too. Not many knew it, but Mr Gormond senior had been killed in the same bloody war that left me with my bad lungs and scarred face. ‘What happened next, Colin?’
Colin shook his head and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. ‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘It was such a lovely day I just went on walking. I went to the park and watched the soldiers digging trenches, then I went for my cigarettes and came home to listen to the wireless.’
‘And after that?’
‘I stayed in.’
‘That’s right. Sometimes I go down to the White Rose, but…’
‘But what, Colin?’
‘Well, Mr Smedley, you know, the air-raid precautions man?’
I nodded. ‘I know him.’
‘He said my blackout cloth wasn’t good enough and he’d fine me if I didn’t get some proper stuff by yesterday.’
‘I understand, Colin.’ Good-quality, thick, impenetrable blackout cloth had become both scarce and expensive, which was no doubt why Colin had been cheated in the first place.
‘Anyway, what with that and the cigarettes…’
I reached into my pocket and slipped out a few bob for him. Colin looked away, ashamed, but I put it on the table and he didn’t tell me to take it back. I knew how it must hurt his pride to accept charity, but I had no idea how much money he made, or how he made it. I’d never seen him beg, but I had a feeling he survived on odd jobs and lived very much from hand to mouth.
I stood up. ‘All right, Colin,’ I said. ‘Thanks very much.’ I paused at the door, uncertain how to say what had just entered my mind. Finally I blundered ahead. ‘It might be better if you kept a low profile till they find him, Colin. You know what some of the people around here are like.’
‘What do you mean, Mr Bascombe?’
‘Just be careful, Colin, that’s all I mean. Just be careful.’
He nodded gormlessly and I left.
As I shut Colin’s front door, I noticed Jack Blackwell standing on his doorstep, arms folded, a small crowd of locals around him, their shadows intersecting on the cobbled street. They kept glancing towards Colin’s house, and when they saw me come out they all shuffled off except Jack himself, who gave me a grim stare before going inside and slamming his door. I felt a shiver go up my spine, as if a goose had stepped on my grave, as my dear mother used to say, bless her soul, and when I got home I couldn’t concentrate on my book one little bit.
By the following morning, when Johnny had been missing over thirty-six hours, the mood in the street had started to turn ugly. In my experience, when you get right down to it, there’s no sorrier spectacle, nothing much worse or more dangerous, than the human mob mentality. After all, armies are nothing more than mobs, really, even when they are organized to a greater or lesser degree. I’d been at Ypres, as you know, and there wasn’t a hell of a lot you could tell me about military organization. So when I heard the muttered words on doorsteps, saw the little knots of people here and there, Jack Blackwell flitting from door to door like a political canvasser, I had to do something, and I could hardly count on any help from DS Longbottom.
One thing I had learned both as a soldier and as a schoolteacher was that, if you had a chance, your best bet was to take out the ringleader. That meant Jack Blackwell. Jack was the nasty type, and he and I had had more than one run-in over his son Nick’s bullying and poor performance in class. In my opinion, young Nick was the sort of walking dead loss who should probably have been drowned at birth, a waste of skin, sinew, tissue and bone, and it wasn’t hard to see where he got it from. Nick’s older brother, Dave, was already doing a long stretch in the Scrubs for beating a night watchman senseless during a robbery, and even the army couldn’t find an excuse to spring him and enlist his service in killing Germans. Mrs Blackwell had been seen more than once walking with difficulty, with bruises on her cheek. The sooner Jack Blackwell got his call-up papers, the better things would be all around.
I intercepted Jack between the Deakins’ and the Kellys’ houses, and it was clear from his gruff, ‘What do you want?’ that he didn’t want to talk to me.
But I was adamant.
‘Morning, Jack,’ I greeted him. ‘Lovely day for a walk, isn’t it?’
‘What’s it to you?’
‘Just being polite. What are you up to, Jack? What’s going on?’
‘None of your business.’
‘Up to your old tricks? Spreading poison?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ He made to walk away, but I grabbed his arm. He glared at me but didn’t do anything. Just as well. At my age, and with my lungs, I’d hardly last ten seconds in a fight. ‘Jack,’ I said, ‘don’t you think you’d all be best off using your time to look for the poor lad?’
‘Look for him! That’s a laugh. You know as well as I do where that young lad is.’
‘Where? Where is he, Jack?’
‘No, I don’t. Tell me.’
‘He’s dead and buried, that’s what.’
‘I don’t know the exact spot. If he’s not in the canal, then he’s buried somewhere not far away.’
‘Maybe he is. But you don’t know that. Not for certain. And even if you believe that, you don’t know who put him there.’
Jack wrenched his arm out of my weakening grip and sneered. ‘I’ve got a damn sight better idea than you have, Frank Bascombe. With all your book learning!’ Then he turned and marched off.
Somehow I got the feeling that I had just made things worse.
After my brief fracas with Jack Blackwell, I was at a loose end. I knew the police would still be looking for Johnny, asking questions, searching areas of waste ground, so there wasn’t much I could do to help them. Feeling impotent, I went down to the canal, near Woodruff’s scrapyard. Old Ezekiel Woodruff himself was poking around in the ruins of his business, so I decided to talk to him. I kept my distance, though, for even on a hot day such as this Woodruff was wearing his greatcoat and black wool gloves with the fingers cut off. He wasn’t known for his personal hygiene, so I made sure I didn’t stand downwind of him. Not that there was much of a wind, but then it didn’t take much.
‘Morning, Ezekiel,’ I said. ‘I understand young Johnny Critchley was down around here the day before yesterday.’
‘So they say,’ muttered Ezekiel.
‘See him, did you?’
‘I weren’t here.’
‘So you didn’t see him?’
‘Police have already been asking questions.’
‘And what did you tell them?’
He pointed to the other side of the canal, the back of the housing estate. ‘I were over there,’ he said. ‘Sometimes people chuck out summat of value, even these days.’
‘But you did see Johnny?’
He paused, then said, ‘Aye.’
‘On this side of the canal?’
‘What time was this?’
‘I don’t have a watch, but it weren’t long after that daft bloke had gone by.’
‘Do you mean Colin Gormond?’
‘Aye, that’s the one.’
So Johnny was still alone by the canal after Colin had passed by. DS Longbottom had probably known this, but he had beaten Colin anyway. One day I’d find a way to get even with him. The breeze shifted a little and I got a whiff of stale sweat and worse. ‘What was Johnny doing?’
‘Doing? Nowt special. He were just walking.’
Woodruff pointed. ‘That way. Towards the city centre.’
‘And nobody approached him?’
‘Nope. Not while I were watching.’
I didn’t think there was anything further to be got from Ezekiel Woodruff, so I bade him good morning. I can’t say the suspicion didn’t enter my head that he might have had something to do with Johnny’s disappearance, though I’d have been hard pushed to say exactly why or what. Odd though old Woodruff might be, there had never been any rumour or suspicion of his being overly interested in young boys, and I didn’t want to jump to conclusions the way Jack Blackwell had. Still, I filed away my suspicions for later.
A fighter droned overhead. I watched it dip and spin through the blue air and wished I could be up there. I’d always regretted not being a pilot in the war. A barge full of soldiers drifted by, and I moved aside on the towpath to let the horse that was pulling it pass by. For my troubles I got a full blast of sweaty horseflesh and a pile of steaming manure at my feet. That had even Ezekiel Woodruff beat.
Aimlessly I followed the direction Ezekiel had told me Johnny had walked in – towards the city centre. As I walked, Jack Blackwell’s scornful words about my inability to find Johnny echoed in my mind. Book learning. That was exactly the kind of cheap insult you would expect from a moron like Jack Blackwell, but it hurt nonetheless. No sense telling him I’d been buried in the mud under the bodies of my comrades for two days. No sense telling him about the young German soldier I’d surprised and bayoneted to death, twisting the blade until it snapped and broke off inside him. Jack Blackwell was too young to have seen action in the last war, but if there was any justice in the world, he’d damn well see it in this one.
The canal ran by the back of the train station, where I crossed the narrow bridge and walked through the crowds of evacuees out front to City Square. Mary Critchley’s anguish reverberated in my mind, too: ‘Mr Bashcombe! Mr Bashcombe!’ I heard her call.
Then, all of a sudden, as I looked at the black facade of the post office and the statue of the Black Prince in the centre of City Square, it hit me. I thought I knew what had happened to Johnny Critchley, but first I had to go back to the street and ask just one important question.
It was late morning. The station smelt of damp soot and warm oil. Crowds of children thronged around trying to find out where they were supposed to go. They wore name tags and carried little cardboard boxes. Adults with clipboards, for the most part temporarily unemployed schoolteachers and local volunteers, directed them to the right queue, and their names were ticked off as they boarded the carriages.
Despite being neither an evacuated child nor a supervisor, I managed to buy a ticket and ended up sharing a compartment with a rather severe-looking woman in a brown uniform I didn’t recognize, and a male civilian with a brush moustache and a lot of Brylcreem on his hair. They seemed to be in charge of several young children, also in the compartment, who couldn’t sit still. I could hardly blame them. They were going to the alien countryside, to live with strangers, far away from their parents, for only God knew how long, and the idea scared them half to death.
The buttoned cushions were warm and the air in the carriage still and close, despite the open window. When we finally set off, the motion stirred up a breeze, which helped a little. On the wall opposite me was a poster of the Scarborough seafront, and I spent most of the journey remembering the carefree childhood holidays I had enjoyed there with my parents in the early years of the century: another world, another time. The rest of the trip I glanced out of the window, beyond the scum-scabbed canal, and saw the urban industrial landscape drift by: back gardens, where some people had put in Anderson shelters half-covered with earth to grow vegetables on; the dark mass of the town hall clock tower behind the city centre buildings; a factory yard, where several men were loading heavy crates onto a lorry, flushed and sweating in the heat.
Then we were in the countryside, where the smells of grass, hay and manure displaced the reek of the city. I saw small, squat farms, drystone walls, sheep and cattle grazing. Soon train tracks and canal diverged. We went through a long noisy tunnel, and the children whimpered. Later, I was surprised to see so many army convoys winding along the narrow roads, and the one big aerodrome we passed seemed buzzing with activity.
All in all, the journey took a little over two hours. Only about ten or eleven children were shepherded off at the small country station, and I followed as they were met and taken to the village hall, where the men and women who were to care for them waited. It was more civilized than some of the evacuation systems I’d heard about, which sounded more like the slave markets of old, where farmers waited on the platforms to pick out the strong lads, and local dignitaries whisked away the nicely dressed boys and girls.
I went up to the volunteer in charge, an attractive young country woman in a simple blue frock with a white lace collar and a belt around her slim waist, and asked her if she had any record of an evacuee called John, or Johnny, Critchley. She checked her records then shook her head, as I knew she would. If I were right, Johnny wouldn’t be here under his own name. I explained my problem to the woman, who told me her name was Phyllis Rigby. She had a yellow ribbon in her long wavy hair and smelled of fresh apples. ‘I don’t see how anything like that could have happened,’ Phyllis said. ‘We’ve been very meticulous. But there again, things have been a little chaotic.’ She frowned in thought for a moment, then she delegated her present duties to another volunteer.
‘Come on,’ she said, ‘I’ll help you go from house to house. There weren’t that many evacuees, you know. Far fewer than we expected.’
I nodded. I’d heard how a lot of parents weren’t bothering to evacuate their children. ‘They can’t see anything happening yet,’ I said. ‘Just you wait. After the first air raid you’ll have so many you won’t have room for them all.’
Phyllis smiled. ‘The poor things. It must be such an upheaval for them.’
I took deep, welcome breaths of country air as Phyllis and I set out from the village hall to visit the families listed on her clipboard. There were perhaps a couple of hundred houses, and less than fifty per cent had received evacuees. Even so, we worked up quite a sweat calling at them all. Or I did, rather, as sweating didn’t seem to be in Phyllis’s nature. We chatted as we went, me telling her about my school teaching, and she telling me about her husband, Thomas, training as a fighter pilot in the RAF. After an hour or so with no luck, we stopped in at her cottage for a refreshing cup of tea, then we were off again.
At last, late in the afternoon, we struck gold.
Mr and Mrs Douglas, who were billeting Johnny Critchley, seemed a very pleasant couple, and they were sad to hear that they could not keep him with them for a while longer. I explained everything to them and assured them that they would get someone else as soon as we had the whole business sorted out.
‘He’s not here,’ Johnny said as we walked with Phyllis to the station. ‘I’ve looked everywhere, but I couldn’t find him.’
I shook my head. ‘Sorry, Johnny. You know your mum’s got a speech impediment. That was why I had to go back and ask her exactly what she said to you before I came here. She said she told you your father was missing in action, which, the way it came out, sounded like missing in Acksham, didn’t it? That’s why you came here, wasn’t it, to look for your father?’
Young Johnny nodded, tears in his eyes. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t understand why she didn’t come and look for him. She must be really vexed with me.’
I patted his shoulder. ‘I don’t think so. More like she’ll be glad to see you. How did you manage to sneak in with the real evacuees, by the way?’
Johnny wiped his eyes with his grubby sleeve. ‘At the station. There were so many people standing around, at first I didn’t know… Then I saw a boy I knew from playing cricket on the rec.’
‘Oliver Bradley,’ I said. The boy whose name Johnny was registered under.
‘Yes. He goes to Broad Hill.’
I nodded. Though I had never heard of Oliver Bradley, I knew the school; it was just across the valley from us. ‘Go on.’
‘I asked him where he was going, and he said he was being sent to Acksham. It was perfect.’
‘But how did you get him to change places with you?’
‘He didn’t want to. Not at first.’
‘How did you persuade him?’
Johnny looked down at the road and scraped at some gravel with the scuffed tip of his shoe. ‘It cost me a complete set of “Great Cricketers” cigarette cards. Ones my dad gave me before he went away.’
I smiled. It would have to be something like that.
‘And I made him promise not to tell anyone, just to go home and say there wasn’t room for him, and he’d have to try again in a few days. I just needed enough time to find Dad… you know.’
We arrived at the station, where Johnny sat on the bench and Phyllis and I chatted in the late afternoon sunlight, our shadows lengthening across the tracks. In addition to the birds singing in the trees and hedgerows, I could hear grasshoppers chirruping, a sound you rarely heard in the city. I had often thought how much I would like to live in the country and, perhaps when I retired from teaching a few years in the future, I would be able to do so.
We didn’t have long to wait for our train. I thanked Phyllis for all her help, told her I wished her husband well, and she waved to us as the old banger chugged out of the station.
It was past blackout when I finally walked into our street holding Johnny’s hand. He was tired after his adventure and had spent most of the train journey with his head on my shoulder. Once or twice, from the depths of a dream, he had called his father’s name.
I could sense that something was wrong as soon as I turned the corner. It was nothing specific, just a sudden chill at the back of my neck. Because of the blackout, I couldn’t see anything clearly, but I got a strong impression of a knot of shifting shadows, just a little bit darker than the night itself, milling around outside Colin Gor-mond’s house.
I quickened my step, and as I got nearer I heard a whisper pass through the crowd when they saw Johnny. Then the shadows began to disperse, slinking and sidling away, disappearing like smoke into the air. From somewhere, Mary Critchley lurched forward with a cry and took young Johnny in her arms. I let him go. I could hear her thanking me between sobs, but I couldn’t stop walking.
The first thing I noticed when I approached Colin’s house was that the window was broken and half the blackout curtain had been ripped away. Next I saw that the door was slightly ajar. I was worried that Colin might be hurt, but out of courtesy I knocked and called out his name.
I pushed the door open and walked inside. It was pitch dark. I didn’t have a torch with me, and I knew that Colin’s light didn’t work, but I remembered the matches and the candle on the table. I lit it and held it up before me as I walked forward.
I didn’t have far to look. If I hadn’t had the candle, I might have bumped right into him. First I saw his face, about level with mine. His froth-specked lips had turned blue, and a trickle of dried blood ran from his left nostril. The blackout cloth was knotted around his neck in a makeshift noose, attached to a hook screwed into the lintel over the kitchen door. As I stood back and examined the scene further, I saw that his down-turned toes were about three inches from the floor, and there was no sign of an upset chair or stool.
Harmless Colin Gormond, friend to the local children. Dead.
I felt the anger well up in me, along with the guilt. It was my fault. I shouldn’t have gone dashing off to Acksham like that in search of Johnny, or I should at least have taken Colin with me. I knew the danger he was in; I had talked to Jack Blackwell before I left. How could I have been so stupid, so careless as to leave Colin to his fate with only a warning he didn’t understand?
Maybe Colin had managed to hang himself somehow, without standing on a stool, though I doubted it. But whether or not Jack Blackwell or the rest had actually laid a finger on him, they were all guilty of driving him to it in my book. Besides, if Jack or anyone else from the street had strung Colin up, there would be evidence – fibres, fingerprints, footprints, whatever – and even DS bloody Longbottom wouldn’t be able to ignore that.
I stumbled outside and made my way towards the telephone box on the corner. Not a soul stirred now, but as I went I heard one door – Jack Blackwell’s door – close softly this time, as if he thought that too much noise might wake the dead, and the dead might have a tale or two to tell.
Another shitty gig. In more ways than one. I can smell the colostomy bags the minute we walk in the front doors. I shudder, as I always do when we enter a place like this. One day, and it might not be long, I know I won’t be coming out.
The Recreation Director is waiting to greet us, crisp blue suit and Morningside accent. Why do RDs all have Scottish accents, even in Vancouver? A gold name tag just above the swell of her left breast tells me her name is Emily. Actually, if you look closely, our Emily’s not that bad at all, despite the ill-fitting glasses and lifeless hair.
‘You’ll be the musicians, then?’ Nervously eyeing her wristwatch.
Why does it sound like an insult?
‘We’ll be the musicians,’ I admit. Then I introduce the band: Memory Lane. There are five of us, three of us expat Brits. Kit Stark, a washed-up hippie, is our drummer. Kit took one too many hits of acid on the Isle of Wight ferry nearly thirty years ago. When they’d fished him out of the Solent and done artificial respiration, he spent the next twenty years in and out of the nut house hallucinating plankton before washing up on the shores of Nova Scotia. Then there’s Benny Leiberman, our morose, alcoholic bass player from Des Moines. Taffy Lloyd plays trumpet and trombone, and when he’s not doing that, he’s our vocalist. He looks like Harry Secombe but sounds more like one of the Spice Girls. The Hunchback of Notre Band, Geoff Carroll, plays piano, guitar and vibes and does most of our arrangements. He’s so short-sighted that he has developed a permanent hunch from leaning over the keyboard to read the music.
Last but not least, there’s me, Dex Hill (well, my real name is William Hill, but wouldn’t you change that for something a bit more jazzy-sounding?), apple of my music teacher’s eye, future clarinet soloist for the London Symphony Orchestra (failed), the next John Coltrane (failed) and husband to the beautiful, sexy and cruel Andrea (also failed).
Get the picture?
‘I suppose you’d like to tune up, then?’ suggests Emily.
Tune up? You don’t tune up a clarinet or a saxophone. Or a trumpet for that matter. Perhaps Benny wants to mess around with his bass strings, though the way he’s shaking he looks more as if he needs a drink.
‘Follow me. I’ll show you the dressing room.’
We follow Emily’s gently swaying hips down the corridor. If we exude a general aroma of booze and smoke, especially with those filthy French cigarettes Benny smokes, she affects not to notice. What does she go home to, my Emily, I wonder? How does she get the aura of death and disease out of her system when she leaves here? Sex? Drugs? Maybe I’ll ask her.
Once we’re settled in the broom closet they call a dressing room, Emily-less, Benny takes out a fifth of Jim Beam and inhales. He doesn’t offer it around. He never does. Some people might think that’s rude, but we’re used to him and his strange lonely ways by now. Kit and I share a spliff. Just another little smell lost among the faeces and sour sweat. Taffy, as is his wont, puffs on a Rothman’s and does a few vocal exercises. Geoff studies the music as if it’s the first time he’s ever set eyes on it. He always does. In a way, I feel sorry for Geoff because wherever we go the poor sod always gets stuck with an out-of-tune piano. Still, he takes it in his stride. Very phlegmatic is Geoff. Lots of sangfroid. You have to have with a hunchback like his.
Anyway, after a few minutes of this and a chat about the order of songs, Emily returns and we’re ready to face the chanting crowds.
‘They’ve been looking forward to this all week, you know,’ she says, with a tight, Morningside smile. ‘A lot of them were in the war, with the Canadian armed forces, or with the RAF. It’ll mean a lot to them, hearing those old songs played again.’
Well, there are about twenty people in the recreation room, which is quite a crowd for this sort of gig. I remember one RD apologizing – I think it was in Swift Current or Red Deer – that there would have been more people in the audience only two of them croaked during the night. That seemed a bit excessive to me. I mean, one, maybe, you might expect, but two?
There they sit, a pathetic bunch of losers waiting to die. It gives me the shivers just to look at them. Empty husks. Nothing left except bodily functions. Even those who have arses left probably need someone to wipe them. Most sit in wheelchairs, reptilian talons plucking at the tartan blankets spread over their knees. Some have the head shakes, some drool and twitch every now and then.
Still, I suppose I’ve seen worse audiences in Toronto jazz clubs.
A quick count, and we’re off: ‘Tennessee Waltz’, always a nice easy swinger to start with. Intro done, Taffy comes in with the vocals, sounding more like Tiny Tim than Sporty Spice today. One, two, three, here we go… Hey up, there’s one bloke on the nod already.
‘I was dancing with my darling…’
I was the best dancer. That’s why she chose me. I was the best dancer. She wasn’t Carl’s to start with. Wasn’t anyone’s. Just another girl at a forces dance on a Saturday night. Carl was the handsomest; he always got the pick of the girls. But not this time. I was the best dancer. Just put his nose out of joint a little, that’s all. I didn’t steal her from anyone. She melted in my arms, her shape moulded against me; we were missing halves of a whole and the purpose the music had been waiting for; we completed it, carried it away from its airy pointlessness to something more profound; we gave the music meaning.
Bullshit, O’Farrell. You stole your best friend’s sweetheart, pure and simple. And all the rest, all this about profundity and meaning, is bullshit. Lust, that’s all it was. Lust. And revenge for all those times when Carl got the girl. And look what happened. A two-week honeymoon, then you took her thousands of miles away from her family and friends, spent the next fifty years in and out of the bottle and drove the poor bitch to an early grave.
No… no… it wasn’t like that. I’m tired, so tired of arguing with myself…
On the nod, just as we’re going into ‘Cheek to Cheek’. Christ, how stimulating we must be, what fucking exciting memories we must invoke. Still, he’s twitching a bit in his wheelchair, so I suppose he must still be alive. His mouth seems to be moving. Maybe he’s trying to sing along. Sometimes they do. But no, this one looks more as if he’s having a conversation with himself, only half-mouthing the words, hardly daring to give them full breath. A little string of drool hangs from his chin. Shit, I hate this job. Solo time, man. Remember what Geoff told you, ‘Stick real close to the melody line, Dex. You’re not Coltrane playing “My Favourite Things”, you know.’ Thanks a lot, Geoff. And fuck you…
Heaven. I’m in heaven. Dancing cheek to cheek. A hot night in late July 1943. A little dance hall in a small town near the base, maybe used to be the church hall or the Women’s Institute. A few rickety tables, a makeshift bar selling warm beer and weak scotch, weak beer and warm scotch, whatever. Dim air thick with smoke hanging in the lights: blue straight from the cigarette, grey when it comes out of the lungs. Everyone smoked then. All of us. It was the least of our worries. ‘Cheek to Cheek’ was the first song we danced to, the first time the magic hit.
But why does my memory smell of burning rubber and leather instead of her perfume? Why do flames and smoke blossom when I close my eyes and lean into her? I’m holding her close enough that she could almost be a part of me and I’m smelling hot metal and engine oil.
My God, Carl, where did that come from? Not now. Not yet. That was later. Back to the dance. Holding her. Some of her face powder rubbed off when my lips brushed her cheek. It tasted like chalk. Carl was pissed, I could tell, but I was flying that night (funny, I was flying the night before, too) and it was my turn for once. They’d only been out together a couple of times. It wasn’t serious. Besides, how was I to know that Mary and I would fall in love? It was just another dance, for crying out loud. We’d been to hundreds of them and Carl always got the best-looking women. But I was the best dancer and Carl had no chance this time when she and I were dancing cheek to cheek, me tasting chalk (or was it stardust?), smelling rubber burn and hearing those crackling noises arcing in my brain from ear to ear.
Christ, just look at them, will you? Half of them are asleep, about a third are deaf and three-quarters have no faculties left at all. What does that make? Is anyone out there listening at all? And that hunchbacked bastard Geoff gives me the evil eye for wandering too far on the ‘Stardust’ solo. As if anyone notices. Poor bastard’s piano is so out of tune it sounds like a warped LP. Funny, all of a sudden I’m thinking of that bitch Andrea. Was ‘Stardust’ playing when we met, on our first date? I’m damned if I remember. ‘Stairway to Heaven’, more likely, or maybe ‘Bitches Brew’. All I remember is ripping her panties off and fucking her hard up against the apartment door the minute we got back from the gig. Play it, Dex. ‘All the Things You Are.’ Bird, Trane, lead the way. And to hell with Geoff’s evil eye…
Carl wouldn’t talk to me. All the next day. And the next. He’d really wanted Mary the way a boy wants candy and he was jealous as hell. I didn’t tell him anything. Didn’t tell him about the softness of her body as we made love in the warm field that July night, the taste of the beet juice on her lips, the smooth warm skin, nipples hard as berries on my tongue, between her legs like warm, wet silk and how she cried out my name when she came. Not his. Mine. And clung to me afterwards for dear life as we lay against the drystone wall and watched squadron after squadron of Lancasters pass over the half-moon, blotting out its light like the plague of locusts, armadas from hell. Held me tighter as the roar of the bombers filled the sky.
No. That wasn’t till later. We didn’t know then, the same way we didn’t know smoking was killing us. We didn’t know. But does that really make it any different in the end?
Another evil look from Geoff. Well, to hell with him. Let the miserable bastard fire me. I’ve had it with this, anyway. ‘In the Middle of a Kiss.’ Taffy always does a good job on this one. You just don’t expect that alto voice to come out of someone so fat. Look at that guy, the way his head’s swaying. If it’s the shakes, at least he’s in time with the music. Maybe some of them are capable of getting a little simple pleasure out of us, after all. Christ, if Andrea could see me now. She’d laugh until she pissed herself and tell me I’d found my true destiny. Here we go, man, ‘Blowing Up a Storm’.
Firestorm. They had to invent new names for the way people died.
Incendiary-bomb-shrunken bodies. Then there were the ones who melted, asphyxiated, baked or just plain roasted. And the human torches running down streets on fire, arms flailing.
These were the important factories and docks we were told we destroyed. The firestorm sucked in all the surrounding air, made winds rage fast as cyclones, suffocated all the people hiding in shelters, cellars and bunkers. Fifteen hundred degrees Fahrenheit at the core. Spontaneous combustion.
And the night after that I stole my best friend’s girl because I was the best dancer. That was the night we clung to one another watching the bombers set out again. Six raids. Day and night. Night and day. 41,800 killed. 37,439 injured, burned, maimed. Her skin warm and smooth, wet silk between her thighs, bombers blanking out the stars and the moon. Making Bombenbrandschrumpfleichen. And the night after that, Carl bought it…
‘Blue Flame.’ That should slow them down a bit before our fiery finale, and a nice searing blues solo for me. Most of them are asleep now anyway. There’s even one old dear snoring in the far corner by the vase of flowers. And there’s Emily, hands clasped on her lap, thin smile on her face. Is she enjoying us? As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t mind fucking Emily, stick it to her hard, right up that tight Morningside arse of hers and take that smile off her face. Bet she’s a screamer. That old guy’s having a real struggle with himself now. Ought to be in a fucking nuthouse not a rest home. Drooling and muttering, arguing with himself…
It wasn’t fair, we’d finished, we were heading home successful, looking forward to a hot cup of tea and a long sleep, no fighters in sight. But then it never is fair, is it? We’d dropped our load, made more Bombenbrand-schrumpfleichen, got out of the flack unscathed, and all of a sudden there it was, a lone Messerschmitt. Whether he was lost or just scavenging, looking for stragglers, I don’t know, but he buzzed at us like an angry wasp and let rip. He could outmanoeuvre us easily and his machine-gun fire ripped through the plane as if our fuselage were made of paper. I could smell the fires breaking out behind us. Me and Clarky, my co-pilot. We started spewing smoke and losing altitude. One of our gunners hit the ’Schmitt and it exploded at ten o’clock. We were bucking and swinging to starboard like an old Short Stirling. God knows how we made it, but we did, Clarky and me, we came limping in the minute we got beyond the old white cliffs and crash-landed in a field. The tail section broke off and flames leapt up all around us. Within minutes we were surrounded by a crowd of gaping yokels right out of a Thomas Hardy novel. Whether they wore smocks and carried pitchforks I can’t be certain, but that’s how I see them when I look now. And when I went back to see how Carl was doing, that’s when I found him. He was dead. Along with the others in back. All black and burned up, uniform and skin fused, welded into one, his knees crooked and his arms tightened up and fists clenched like a boxer, aimed at me. For one of those stupid moments, before reality’s cold blade pierced the back of my brain, I thought he was getting ready to fight me. We hadn’t spoken for three days because of Mary and I knew he was still pissed. But he was dead. Burned and shrivelled.
Just like the people of Hamburg. Carl, you poor, sad, cocky, two-left-footed bastard. You were the handsomest, the most charming; you were the lady killer. But come waltz, tango or jitterbug, goddammit, I was the best dancer. I was the best dancer!
‘I was the best dancer! I was the best dancer!’
One, two, three, and blow that bugle, Taffy! Let’s wake the buggers up. ‘Bugle Call Rag’ and Jesus Christ, will you look at him, the old bastard’s on his feet. Taffy flashes me a big grin and we get in the groove. I can feel Geoff’s eyes boring into the back of my head. Fuck him. Things are jumping now. Taffy and I are trading licks like we haven’t done in years. Trumpet and sax. Dizzy and Bird. Miles and Trane. Look at the guy go, he’s out of his chair and jumping up and down, yelling at the top of his lungs, baggy pants slipping down his hips.
‘I was the best dancer! I was the best dancer!’
Sure you were, buddy!
All of a sudden he seems to reach some sort of inner peak or crescendo as my sax and Taffy’s trumpet join in some of the weirdest harmonies we’ve ever found. He’s on tiptoe, stretching his arms as high as he can, reaching for the ceiling, or for heaven.
Then his whole body starts shaking. Taffy trails off to take a break and I blow harder, urging the old guy higher, but he’s out of synch with us now. Whatever he’s into, eyes closed, head tilted towards the ceiling, it’s nothing to do with our music. His pants are down around his ankles, his shrivelled scrotum and shrunken penis there for all to see. I stop the solo and turn to catch Geoff’s dagger gaze. I grin at him and shrug; he leads us back to the opening riff in a few spare, tight-assed chords.
The old man stiffens, then drops to the floor, spent. One by one, we let the music dribble away from us. Then there’s the strangest sensation. The room seems to draw in on him, as if all its energy focuses on that single inert figure. Everything feels tight, like a corked bottle about to blow. The room fills with pressure, and it’s hard against my eardrums, that deaf and fuzzy feeling before your ears pop on an airplane, everything silent and in slow motion.
Then it pops, the air hisses out, and he’s just someone lying on the floor.
‘Jesus,’ whispers the man beside him. ‘When I go, I want to go just like that.’
Then the smooth, practised staff breeze in like a team of office cleaners, or scene changers between the acts of a play, and start to tidy up the mess in a silence as heavy as prayer. Someone in white checks the old man’s pulse and takes out a stethoscope. The other inmates, dazed, mumbling and drooling, are all wheeled back to their rooms. And it’s getting to look like nothing ever happened.
Before they’re done, Emily starts leading us back to the dressing room. ‘I think it would probably be best all around if you left now, don’t you think?’ she says. ‘Then we can get everyone calmed down. They take it hard, some of them, when one of them passes on, you know. See their own future, I suppose, poor things. Don’t worry, you’ll be paid your normal rate, of course. It wasn’t your fault, after all, was it?’
I nod dumbly, walking beside her. She’s right, of course. It wasn’t our fault, no reason why we shouldn’t get paid. But even so. See their own future, I suppose. Somehow that echoes, gets to me so much that I forget to ask for her phone number. And I remember it afterwards in the van. But this time Benny passes around the Jim Beam and Kit rolls another spliff and soon it’s just another memory of just another shitty gig, after all, just another slice of turd on the nursing-home circuit.
Isn’t it strange the way two strangers might strike up a casual acquaintance due simply to a quirk of fate? And isn’t it even stranger how that innocent meeting might so completely alter the life of one of them? That was exactly what happened when Edward Grainger and I met in a pub one wet September lunchtime, only weeks before his tragic loss.
I work in a bank in the City. It’s a dull job, enlivened only by the occasional surge of adrenalin when the pound takes yet another plunge on the foreign exchange markets, and most lunchtimes I like to get out of the office and take refuge in the Mason’s Arms.
As a rule, I will drink half a pint of Guinness with a slice of quiche or a cheese roll, say, and perhaps, once in a while, treat myself to a steak and kidney pie. As I eat, I work at the Times crossword, which I never seem able to finish before my glass is empty, and after my meal I enjoy a cigarette. I know the vile things are bad for me, but I can’t quite seem to give them up. Besides, how bad can one cigarette a day be? And only five days a week, at that.
Given its location in the City, the Mason’s Arms is generally busy, noisy and smoky by half past twelve on a weekday, and that suits me just fine. Lost in the crowd, buffeted by conversation and laughter that require no response on my part, I can concentrate on my crossword or allow my mind to drift in directions that the constant application of little grey cells to columns of figures precludes.
That particular lunchtime I found myself leaving the office a few minutes later than usual due to an important telephone conversation with an overseas client. The short walk also took longer because I had to struggle against the wind and rain with my rather flimsy umbrella. When I got to the Arms, as I had taken to calling it, I found my usual little corner table already taken by a stranger in a pinstripe suit. I could hardly tell him to sod off, so I carried my drink over and sat opposite him.
As he read his Times, I studied his features closely. I would guess his age at about forty-five – mostly because of the wrinkles around his eyes and the grey hair around his temples and ears – but having said that, I would have to admit that the overall effect of his face was one of youthfulness. He had bright blue eyes and a healthy, ruddy complexion, and he showed no sign of that dark, shadowy stubble that makes so many men look downright repulsive, not to mention sinister.
After I had finished my ham roll, I lit my cigarette and wrestled with eight down, letting the ebb and flow of conversation drift over me until a voice seemed to single itself out from the crowd and speak directly to me.
Startled, I noticed the man opposite looking at me in a way that suggested he had just spoken.
‘Pardon?’ I said. ‘I was miles away.’
‘“Crippen,”’ he said. ‘Eight down. “Quiet prince upset for this murderer.” It’s an anagram of “prince” and “p” for silent.’
‘Yes, I do see that, thank you very much.’ If my tone was a little frosty, it served the bugger right. I hate it when people solve my crossword clues for me, the same way I hate anyone reading over my shoulder. Takes all the fun out of it.
His face dropped when he saw the look I gave him.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘Very rude of me. Didn’t think.’
‘It’s all right.’ I put the crossword aside and flicked a column of ash at the floor.
‘Look, you wouldn’t happen to know anything about septic tanks, would you?’ he asked.
‘I’m afraid not.’ As far as conversational gambits went, this fellow wasn’t exactly heading for the top of the class in my book.
‘Oh. Pity. You see, we’re having one installed in a couple of weeks, my wife Harriet and I. I’m just not sure what kind of mess to expect.’
‘Well, I suppose they’ll have to dig the garden up,’ I told him. ‘But I can’t honestly say I’ve ever seen one, so I don’t know how big they are.’
He smiled. ‘Well, that’s the point, isn’t it? You’re not supposed to see them. We’re moving to the country, you know, to Hampshire.’
‘Why are you moving?’ I asked. And though I surprised myself by asking such a personal question of a complete stranger, it felt natural enough.
He sipped his gin and tonic before replying. ‘It’s for Harriet, mostly,’ he said. ‘Wants the country air. Not that I’d knock it, mind you. And it’s a beautiful cottage, or it will be after the renovations. Seventeenth century. I’ll keep the flat in town, of course, go down to the country at weekends. Yes, I’m sure it’ll work out.’
‘I hope so,’ I told him. Then I excused myself and headed back to the bank, it being almost one-thirty and Mr Beamish, the branch manager, being a real stickler for punctuality.
As time went on, our conversations became a regular feature of my lunchtime visits to the Arms, though I would be hard pushed now to think of everything we discussed: politics, of course, on which we disagreed; books, on which we agreed far more than we would have imagined; and marriage, about which we couldn’t quite make up our minds. Sometimes, we would just work on the crossword together in silence.
He also talked about weekends at the country house, of autumn walks in the woods, the occasional hovercraft trip to the Isle of Wight, quiet nights with a good bottle of claret, a hefty volume of Trollope, and a log fire crackling in the hearth.
Though I had never fancied country living myself, I must admit that Edward’s accounts made me quite envious. So much so that when Evelyn brought up the subject at home after watching a documentary on the Cotswolds, I thought it might become a real possibility for us, too, in a year or two’s time.
Edward and I never met at any other times or places – ours was a purely casual arrangement – but I like to think that a sort of friendship developed. Sometimes he didn’t turn up at all. He worked in international finance, he told me, and now and then he had to sacrifice his lunch hour for emergency meetings or telephone calls from strange time zones. Occasionally, he had to go abroad for a few days. But when he did come, we usually contrived to sit together and chat over our drinks and rolls for half an hour or so.
During that time, I didn’t find out very much more about his private life, and if I were to come to any conclusions they would be due entirely to my reading between the lines.
I didn’t ask Edward about his wife’s occupation, for example, but somehow I got the impression that she spent most of her time at home cooking, cake-decorating, cleaning, sewing, knitting and such. What people used to call a ‘housewife’ in the old days. I suppose now she could call herself an ‘estate manager’ down in Hampshire. As far as their relationship went, it sounded perfectly normal to me.
Though I had never met Harriet, I’m sure you can imagine how shocked I was on that bright, windy Thursday in early October when Edward came in a quarter of an hour later than usual, looking drawn and haggard, and told me that his wife had disappeared.
Naturally, I tried to comfort him as best I could over the following weeks, at least as far as our brief and irregular meetings allowed. But there was little I could do. For the most part, I could only look on sadly as Edward lost weight and his former ruddy complexion turned wan. Soon he came to remind me of the wretched youth in Keats’s poem: ‘Alone and palely loitering’.
Weeks passed, and still there was no sign of Harriet. Theories as to her disappearance varied, as they do in cases like this. One tabloid speculated that she had been abducted by a serial killer, then chopped up and buried somewhere. A local doctor suggested that she could have suffered some form of amnesia. If so, he went on, she might easily have wandered off and ended up living on the streets of London with the thousands of other lost and lonely souls. One neighbour, Edward told me, speculated that Harriet could have been actually planning her escape for some time and had simply taken off for America, Ireland or France to start a new life under a new name. With a new man, of course. Astonishingly, Edward also told me that even he had come under police suspicion at one time, albeit not for long.
Christmas came and went. It was about as cheerful as a wet weekend in July, the way it usually is for families whose children have all grown up and left home. Edward seemed to have gained a little colour when I saw him after the holidays. Or perhaps the Arctic winds we had that January had rubbed his skin raw. Anyway, it was around then that he started dropping in at the Arms for lunch less and less frequently.
By the beginning of February I hadn’t seen him for three weeks, and I was slipping easily back into my old routine of doing the crossword over lunch. I missed his company, of course, and I was certainly curious about Harriet, but we are creatures of habit, are we not? And old habits are deeply ingrained.
It was near the end of March when I saw him next, but it wasn’t in the Arms. No, I had come into the West End to shop one Saturday afternoon, mostly to get out of the way while Evelyn was busy planting the herbaceous borders. I hate gardening, and if I’m around I usually get roped in.
Anyway, I was browsing downstairs in the fiction section of Waterstone’s on Charing Cross Road, when I saw Edward across the table of new releases. It took me a moment to recognize him because he was wearing casual clothes and seemed to have done something to remove the grey from his hair. He was also fingering the new Will Self paperback, which one would hardly expect of a Trollope man.
On second glance, though, I realized it was definitely Edward and that the pretty young blonde with the prominent breasts didn’t just happen to be standing beside him; she was with him. Surely this couldn’t be the elusive Harriet?
Then a strange thing happened. Edward caught my eye as I walked over, and I saw a very odd look pass over his features. For a moment, I could have sworn, he wanted to turn tail and avoid me. But I got to him before he could retreat.
‘Edward,’ I said. ‘It’s good to see you.’ Then I looked at the blonde. I could see her roots. ‘I see Harriet has turned up, then,’ I said with a smile.
Edward cleared his throat and the blonde merely frowned. ‘Well… er…’ he said. ‘Not exactly. I mean, no, she hasn’t. This is Joyce.’ He put his arm around the blonde’s shoulders and looked down at her with obvious pride and passion.
I said hello to Joyce as Edward haltingly explained our relationship, such as it was, then he made excuses and they hurried up the stairs as if the place were on fire. That was the last time I ever clapped eyes on Edward Grainger.
About a year after the incident in Waterstone’s, something so profound, so shocking and so unexpected happened to me that my life was never to be the same again. I fell in love.
Like most people my age, I had long thought myself immune to powerful passions, long settled into a sedate and comfortable existence with little in the way of strong emotion to upset its even keel. If I have unsatisfied or unrequited hopes and wishes, then I am in good company, for who hasn’t? If I regret some of the sacrifices I have made for the comforts I have gained, who doesn’t? And if I sometimes feel that my life lacks adventure, lacks spice, then again, who doesn’t? In all that, I felt, I was perfectly normal.
Life, it had come to seem to me, was a slow betrayal of the dreams of one’s youth and a gradual decline from the desires of one’s adolescence. Little did I know what a fragile illusion all that was until I met Katrina.
Imagine, if you can, my utter amazement when the bells started to ring, the earth moved and a sudden spring came into my step every time I saw her. Absurd, I told myself, she’ll never pay the least attention to an old fuddy-duddy like you. But she did. Oh, indeed she did. Love truly must be blind if such a gorgeous creature as Katrina could give herself to me.
Katrina came to work for the branch in summer, and by autumn we were meeting clandestinely whenever we could. She lived alone in a tiny bedsit in Kennington, which was convenient, if a bit cramped. But what is a little discomfort to a pair of lovers? We were consumed with a passion that could no more be stopped than an avalanche or a tidal wave. It picked us up, tossed us about like rag dolls and threw us back on the ground dazed, dazzled and breathless. I couldn’t get enough of her sad eyes, her soft red lips, her small breasts with the nipples hard as acorns when we made love, her skin like warm brown silk.
Needless to say, this affair made life very difficult both at work and at home, but I think I managed to cope well enough under the circumstances. I know I succeeded in hiding it from Evelyn, for I surely would have felt the repercussions had I not.
We went on meeting furtively for almost a year, during which time our passion did not abate in the least. Katrina never once asked me to abandon my marriage and live with her, but I wanted to. Oh God, how I wanted to. Only the thought of all the trouble, all the upheaval, that such a move would cause prevented me. For Evelyn wouldn’t take it lying down. So, like many others embroiled in affairs, I simply let it run on, perhaps hoping vaguely that some deus ex machina would come along and solve my problems for me.
Then, one day, after an excruciatingly painful Christmas spent away from Katrina, Evelyn reminded me of a conversation we had had some time ago about getting a country cottage, and pointed out the ideal place in an estate agent’s brochure: a rundown, isolated cottage in Oxfordshire, going for a song.
Furiously, I began to think of how such a move might prevent me from seeing Katrina as often as I needed to. We would have to sell the Dulwich house, of course, but the Oxfordshire cottage was indeed going for such an unbelievably low price that I might be able to afford a small flat in town.
At a pinch, however, Evelyn might suggest I could commute. The thought of that was unbearable. Though Katrina and I wouldn’t be separated totally, anything other than a quick session after work before the train home would be impossible. And neither of us wanted to live like that. A quickie in the back of a car is so sordid, and we were passionately, romantically in love.
On the other hand, I could hardly crush Evelyn’s dreams of a place in the country without thinking up a damn good explanation as to why we should simply stay put. And I couldn’t. The price was right, and we might not have another chance for years. Even with the renovations that would need to be done, we worked out, we could still easily afford it.
And so we took the plunge and bought the cottage. To say I was a soul in torment might sound like an exaggeration, but believe me, it doesn’t even come close to describing how wretched I really felt as I signed on the dotted line.
We had sent Sam Halsey, a jack-of-all-trades in the renovation business, over to Oxfordshire on a number of occasions to assess what needed doing and how it could be done to our liking and to our budget. One of his complaints was that, due to its isolation and to the odd whims of its previous owners, the toilet arrangements were far from adequate.
After much deliberation, one afternoon at the house in Dulwich, Sam said, ‘Of course, you could have a septic tank put in.’
‘A what?’ I said.
‘A septic tank. Perfectly respectable. Lots of country folk have them. Of course, you’ll need some carrion.’
‘I’m sorry, Sam, I don’t follow you.’
‘Carrion. To get the whole process going. Now, some of the younger chaps in the business will tell you a bit of compost will do the job just fine, but don’t believe them. Don’t you believe them. My old boss told me-’
Sam’s voice faded into the background as, suddenly, it hit me. I thought of my old lunchtime companion, Edward Grainger, and that guilty look that flitted across his features the time I saw him in Waterstone’s with Joyce, the blonde.
I remembered the tragedy of his wife’s disappearance, and how, after that, I saw less and less of him.
And I remembered how the disappearance occurred around the time they were having a septic tank installed at their cottage in Hampshire. Carrion, indeed.
And then I thought of my Katrina, my beautiful, beautiful Katrina, who took my breath away with her sad eyes and her skin like warm brown silk.
And, lastly, I thought of Evelyn. Life just isn’t fair, is it? Some people don’t simply fade away quietly into the obscurity from whence they came when you want rid of them, do they? No, they have to cause trouble, create scenes, make unreasonable demands and generally do their damnedest to ruin your hopes of a decent and happy future without them. They just won’t go away. Well, as I have already explained, Evelyn is one of those people. I’m certain of it.
On the other hand, people disappear all the time, don’t they? And people change. Harriet changed into Joyce, didn’t she? Sometimes you just have to give a little kick-start to get the process going, like the carrion in the septic tank, and then nature takes care of the rest.
‘Penny for them?’
‘What? Oh, I’m sorry, Sam. Miles away.’
‘That’s all right. I was just saying as how you’ll need some carrion for the septic tank. My old boss swore by it, he did.’
At that moment, Evelyn passed by the open French windows in his shabby beige cardigan, secateurs in hand. Wisps of grey hair blew in the March wind like spiders’ webs, and his glasses had slipped down his nose. Yes, people disappear all the time, don’t they? And if it can happen to wives, I thought, then it can bloody well happen to husbands too.
‘Yes, Sam,’ I said slowly. ‘Yes, I suppose we will. Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.’
APRIL IN PARIS
The girl sitting outside the cafe reminds me of April. She has the same long hennaed hair, which she winds around her index finger in the same abstracted way. She is waiting for someone clearly – a lover perhaps – and as she waits she smokes, holding her cigarette in the same way, taking the same short, hurried puffs, that April used to do. With her free hand, she alternates between taking sips of milky pastis and tapping her cigarette packet on the table. She is smoking Marlboro, as everyone in Paris seems to do these days. Back then it was all Gitanes, Gauloises and Disque Bleus.
Still, it wasn’t smoking that killed April; it was love.
It is late September, and though the weather is mild, it is still too cold outside for an old man like me, with blood as thin and as lacking in nutrients as workhouse gruel. Instead, I sit inside the little cafe on the Boulevard St Germain over a pichet of red wine, just watching the people come and go. The young people. I have spent most of my life surrounded by the young, and though I grow inexorably older every year, they always seem to stay young. Immortal youth. Like Tithonus, I am ‘a white-haired shadow roaming like a dream’. But unlike Tennyson’s luckless narrator, who gained eternal life but not eternal youth, I am not immortal.
Six months, perhaps less, the doctors say. Something is growing inside me; my cells are mutating. As yet I feel little pain, though my appetite has diminished and I often suffer from extreme weariness.
Dying, I find, lends an edge to living, gives a clarity and a special, golden hue to the quotidian scenes parading before me: a swarthy man with a briefcase, glancing at his watch, speeding up, late for an important appointment; a woman chastising her little girl at the corner, wagging her finger, the girl crying and stamping her foot; a distracted priest stumbling briefly as he walks up the steps to the church across the boulevard.
Dying accentuates the beauty of the young, sets their energy in relief, enhances the smooth glow of their unwrinkled skin. But dying does not make me bitter. I am resigned to my fate; I have come to the end of my threescore and ten; I have seen enough. If you wish to travel, my doctors told me, do it now while you’re still strong enough. So here I am, revisiting the scene of my one and only great amour.
April. She always pronounced it Ap-reel. When I think of her, I still hear Thelonious Monk playing ‘April in Paris’, hesitantly at first, feeling his way into the song, reluctant to define the theme, then worrying away at it and, once finding it, altering it so much that the music becomes his own, only to be abandoned finally.
Of course, April didn’t give a tinker’s for Thelonious Monk. She listened to him dutifully, as they all did, for they were the heirs of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs, to whom Monk, Bird, Trane, Miles and Mingus were gods, sacred and cool. But April’s generation had its own gods – the Doors, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan – gods of words and images as well as of music, and it was they who provided the soundtrack to which I lived during my year as a visiting lecturer in American literature at the Sorbonne in 1968.
This cafe hasn’t changed much. A lick of paint, perhaps, if that. It probably hasn’t changed much since Hemingway and Fitzgerald used to hang out around here. Even the waiters are probably the same. It was here I first met April, of course (why else would I come here?), one fine evening towards the end of March that year, when I was still young enough to bear the slight chill of a clear spring evening.
That April was beautiful almost goes without saying. I remember her high cheekbones, her smooth, olive complexion, dark, watchful eyes and rich, moist lips, down-turned at the edges, often making her look sulky or petulant when she was far from it. I remember also how she used to move with grace and confidence when she remembered, but how the gaucheness of late adolescence turned her movements into a country girl’s gait when she was at her most unselfconscious. She was tall, slim and long-legged, and her breasts were small, round and high. The breasts of a Cranach nude.
We met, as I say, one late March evening in 1968 at this cafe, the Café de la Lune, where I was then sitting with the usual group: Henri, Nadine, Brad, Brigitte, Alain and Paul. This was only days after Daniel Cohn-Bendit and seven other students had occupied the dean’s office at Nanterre to protest against the recent arrest of six members of the National Vietnam Committee, an event that was to have cataclysmic effects on us all not long afterwards. Much of the time in those days we spoke of revolution, but that evening we were discussing, I remember quite clearly, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, when in she walked, wearing a woolly jumper and close-fitting, bell-bottomed jeans with flowers embroidered around the bells. She was carrying a bulky leather shoulder bag, looking radiant and slightly lost, glancing around for someone she knew.
It turned out that she knew Brad, an American backpacker who had attached himself to our group. People like Brad had a sort of fringe, outlaw attraction for the students. They seemed, with their freedom to roam and their contempt for rules and authority, to embody the very principles that the students themselves, with their heavy workloads, exams and future careers, could only imagine, or live vicariously. There were always one or two Brads around. Some dealt in drugs to make a living; Brad, though he spoke a good revolution, lived on a generous allowance wired regularly by his wealthy Boston parents via Western Union.
April went up to Brad and kissed him on both cheeks, a formal French gesture he seemed to accept with thinly veiled amusement. In his turn, Brad introduced her to the rest of us. That done, we resumed our discussion over another bottle of wine, the tang of Gauloises and café noir infusing the chill night air, and April surprised me by demonstrating that she had not only read Tender Is the Night, but that she had thought about it, too, even though she was a student of history, not of literature.
‘Don’t you think those poor young girls are terribly used?’ she said. ‘I mean, Nicole is Dick’s patient. He should be healing her, not sleeping with her. And the way Rosemary is manipulated by her mother… I’d go so far as to say that the mother seems to be pimping for her. Those films she made -’ and here April gave her characteristic shrug, no more than a little shiver rippling across her shoulders – ‘they were no doubt made to appeal to older men.’ She didn’t look at me as she said this, but my cheeks burned nonetheless.
‘Have you read Day of the Locust?’ Henri, one of the other students, chimed in. ‘If you want to know about how Hollywood warps people, that’s your place to start. There’s a mother in there who makes Rosemary’s look like a saint.’
‘Huxley?’ asked Nadine, not our brightest.
‘No,’ said April. ‘That was After Many a Summer. Day of the Locust was Nathanael West, I think. Yes?’
Here, she looked directly at me, the professor, for the first time, turned on me the full blaze of her beauty. She knew she was right, of course, but she still deferred to me out of politeness.
‘That’s right,’ I said, smiling, feeling my heart lurch and my soul tingle inside its chains of flesh. ‘Nathanael West wrote Day of the Locust.’
And from that moment on I was smitten.
I told myself not to be a fool, that April was far too young for me, and that a beautiful woman like her couldn’t possibly be interested in a portly, forty-year-old lecturer, even if he did wear faded denim jeans, had a goatee and grew those wisps of hair that remained a little longer than some of his colleagues thought acceptable. But after that first meeting I found myself thinking about April a lot. In fact I couldn’t get her out of my mind. It wasn’t mere lust – though, Lord knows, it was that too – but I loved the sound of her voice, loved the way she twisted strands of hair around her finger as she spoke, the way she smoked her cigarette, loved the passion of her arguments, the sparkle of her laughter, the subtle jasmine of her perfume.
That night, she had left the cafe after about an hour, arm in arm with Brad – young, handsome, rich, footloose and fancy-free Brad – and I had lain awake tormented by images of their passionate love making. I had never felt like that before, never felt so consumed by desire for someone and so racked by pain at the thought of someone else having her. It was as if an alien organism had invaded my body, my very soul, and wrought such changes there that I could hardly cope with more mundane matters, such as teaching and writing, eating and sleeping.
The second time I met her it was raining. I was walking along the quai across from Notre Dame, staring distractedly at the rain pitting the river’s steely surface, thinking of her, when she suddenly ducked under my umbrella and took my arm.
I must have gasped out loud.
‘Professor Dodgson,’ she said. Not a question. She knew who I was. ‘Sorry I startled you.’
But that wasn’t why I gasped, I wanted to tell her. It was the sudden apparition of this beautiful creature I had been dreaming about for days. I looked at her. The driving rain had soaked her hair and face. Like Dick in Tender Is the Night, I wanted to drink the rain that ran from her cheeks. ‘How did you recognize me under this?’ I asked her.
She gave that little shrug that was no more than a ripple and smiled up at me. ‘Easy. You’re carrying the same old briefcase you had last week. It’s got your initials on it.’
‘How sharp of you,’ I said. ‘You should become a detective.’
‘Oh, I could never become a fascist pig.’ She said this with a completely straight face. People said things like that back then.
‘Just a joke,’ I said. ‘Where are you going?’
She looked at me again, chewing on her lower lip for a moment as she weighed up my invitation. ‘All right,’ she said finally. ‘I know a place.’ And her gentle pressure on my arm caused me to change direction and enter the narrow alleys that spread like veins throughout the Latin Quarter. ‘Your French is very good,’ she said as we walked. ‘Where did you learn?’
‘School, mostly. Then university. I seem to have a facility for it. We used to come here when I was a child, too, before the war. Brittany. My father fought in the first war, you see, and he developed this love for France. I think the fighting gave him a sort of stake in things.’
‘Do you, too, have this stake in France?’
‘I don’t know.’
She found the cafe she was looking for on the Rue St Séverin, and we ducked inside. ‘Can you feel what’s happening?’ she asked me, once we were warm and dry, sitting at the zinc counter with hot, strong coffees before us. She lit a Gauloise and touched my arm. ‘Isn’t it exciting?’
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. She thought something was happening between us. I could hardly disguise my joy. But I was also so tongue-tied that I couldn’t think of anything wise or witty to say. I probably sat there, my mouth opening and closing like a guppy’s before saying, ‘Yes. Yes, it is exciting.’
‘There’ll be a revolution before spring’s over, you mark my words. We’ll be rid of de Gaulle and ready to start building a new France.’
Ah, yes. The revolution. I should have known. It was the topic on everyone’s mind at the time. Except mine, that is. I tried not to show my disappointment. Not that I wasn’t interested – you couldn’t be in Paris in the spring of 1968 and not be interested in the revolution one way or another – but I had been distracted from politics by my thoughts of April. Besides, as radical as I might have appeared to some people, I was still a foreign national, and I had to do my best to keep a low political profile, difficult though it was. One false step and I’d not only be out of a job but out of the country, and far away from April, for ever. And I had answered her question honestly; I didn’t know whether I had a stake in France or not.
‘What does Brad think?’ I asked.
‘Brad?’ She seemed surprised by my question. ‘Brad is an anarchist.’
She twisted her hair around her finger. ‘I’m not sure. I know I want change. I think I’m an anarchist too, though I’m not sure I’d want to be completely without any sort of government at all. But we want the same things. Peace. A new, more equal society. He is an American, but they have had many demonstrations there, too, you know. Vietnam.’
‘Ah, yes. I remember some of them.’
We passed a while talking about my experiences in California, which seemed to fascinate April, though I must admit I was far more interested in tracing the contours of her face and drinking in the beauty of her eyes and skin than I was in discussing the war in Vietnam.
In the end she looked at her watch and said she had to go to a lecture but would probably see me later at the cafe. I said I hoped so and watched her walk away.
You will have gathered that I loved April to distraction, but did she love me? I think not. She liked me well enough. I amused her, entertained her, and she was perhaps even flattered by my attentions, but ultimately brash youth wins out over suave age. It was Brad she loved. Brad, whose status in my mind quickly changed from that of a mildly entertaining, reasonably intelligent hanger-on to the bane of my existence.
He always seemed to be around, and I could never get April to myself. Whether this was deliberate – whether he was aware of my interest and made jealous by it – I do not know. All I know is that I had very few chances to be alone with her. When we were together, usually at a cafe or walking in the street, we talked – talked of what was happening in France, of the future of the university, of literature, of the Anarchists, Maoists, Trotskyists and Communists, talked about all these, but not, alas, of love.
Perhaps this was my fault. I never pushed myself on her, never tried to make advances, never tried to touch her, even though my cells ached to reach out and mingle with hers, and even though the most casual physical contact – a touch on the arm, for example – set me aflame with desire. After our first few meetings, she would greet me with kisses on each cheek, the way she greeted all her friends, and my cheeks would burn for hours afterwards. One day she left a silk scarf at the cafe, and I took it home and held it to my face like a lovesick schoolboy, inhaling April’s subtle jasmine perfume as I tried to sleep that night.
But I did not dare make a pass; I feared her rejection and her laughter far more than anything else. While we do not have the capacity to choose our feelings in the first place, we certainly have the ability to choose not to act on them, and that was what I was trying to do, admittedly more for my own sake than for hers.
When I did see April alone again it was late in the morning of 3 May, and I was still in bed. I had been up late the night before, trying to concentrate on a Faulkner paper I had to present at a conference in Brussels that weekend, and as I had no actual classes on Fridays I had slept in.
The soft but insistent tapping at my door woke me from a dream about my father in the trenches (why is it we never seem to dream at night about those we dream about all day?) and I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes.
I must explain that at the time, like the poor French workers, I wasn’t paid very much and consequently, as I didn’t need very much either, I lived in a small pension in a cobbled alley off the Boulevard St Michel, between the university and the Luxembourg Gardens. As I could easily walk from the pension to my office at the Sorbonne, as I usually ate at the university or at a cheap local bistro, and as I spent most of my social hours in the various bars and cafes of the Latin Quarter, I didn’t really need much more than a place to lay my head at night.
I stretched, threw on my dressing gown and opened the door. I’m sure you can imagine my shock on finding April standing there. Alone. She had been to the room only once previously, along with Brad and a couple of others for a nightcap of cognac after a Nina Simone concert, but she clearly remembered where I lived.
‘Oh, I’m sorry, Richard-’ She had started calling me by my first name, at my insistence, though of course she pronounced it in the French manner, and it sounded absolutely delightful to me every time she spoke it. ‘I didn’t know…’
‘Come in,’ I said, standing back. She paused a moment in the doorway, smiled shyly, then entered. I lay back on the bed, mostly because there was hardly enough room for two of us to sit together.
‘Shall I make coffee?’ she asked.
‘There’s only instant.’
She made a typical April moue at the idea of instant coffee, as any true French person would, but I directed her to the tiny kitchenette behind the curtain and she busied herself with the kettle, calling out over her shoulder as she filled it and turned on the gas.
‘There’s trouble at the university,’ she said. ‘That’s what I came to tell you. It’s happening at last. Everything’s boiling over.’
I remembered that there was supposed to be a meeting about the ‘Nanterre Eight’, who were about to face disciplinary charges the following Monday, and I assumed that was what she meant.
‘What’s happening?’ I asked, still not quite awake.
April came back into the bedroom and sat demurely on the edge of my only chair, trying not to look at me lying on the bed. ‘The revolution,’ she said. ‘There’s already a big crowd there. Students and lecturers together. They’re talking about calling the police. Closing down the university.’
This woke me up a little more. ‘They’re what?’
‘It’s true,’ April went on. ‘Somebody told me that the university authorities said they’d call in the police if the crowds didn’t disperse. But they’re not dispersing, they’re getting bigger.’ She lit a Gauloise and looked around for an ashtray. I passed her one I’d stolen from the Café de la Lune. She smiled when she saw it and took those short little puffs at her cigarette, hardly giving herself time to inhale and enjoy the tobacco before exhaling and puffing again. ‘Brad’s already there,’ she added.
‘Then he’d better be careful,’ I said, getting out of bed. ‘He’s neither a student nor a French citizen.’
‘But don’t you see? This is everybody’s struggle!’
‘Try telling that to the police.’
‘You can be so cynical sometimes.’
‘I’m sorry, April,’ I said, not wanting to offend her. ‘I’m just concerned for him, that’s all.’ Of course, I was lying. Nothing would have pleased me better than to see Brad beaten to a pulp by the police or, better still, deported, but I could hardly tell April that. The kettle boiled and she gave me a smile of forgiveness and went to make the coffee. She only made one cup – for me – I noticed, and as I sipped it she talked on about what had happened that morning and how she could feel change in the air. Her animation and passion excited me and I had to arrange my position carefully to avoid showing any obvious evidence of my arousal.
Even in the silences she seemed inclined to linger, and in the end I had to ask her to leave while I got dressed, as there was nowhere for her to retain her modesty, and the thought of her standing so close to me, facing the wall, as I took off my dressing gown was too excruciating for me to bear. She pouted and left, saying she’d wait for me outside. When I rejoined her we walked to the Sorbonne together, and I saw that she was right about the crowds. There was defiance in the air.
We found Brad standing with a group of Anarchists, and April went over to take his arm. I spoke with him briefly for a while, alarmed at some of the things he told me. I found some colleagues from the literature department, and they said the police had been sent for. By four o’clock in the afternoon the university was surrounded by the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité – the CRS, riot police – and a number of students and lecturers had been arrested. Before long even more students arrived and started fighting with the CRS to free those who had been arrested. Nobody was backing down this time.
The revolution had begun.
I took the train to Brussels on Saturday morning and didn’t come back until late on Tuesday, and though I had heard news of events in Paris, I was stunned at what awaited me on my return. The city was a war zone. The university was closed, and nobody knew when, or in what form, it would reopen. Even the familiar smell of the city – its coffee, cheese and something slightly overripe aroma – had changed, and it now smelled of fire, burnt plastic and rubber. I could taste ashes in my mouth. I wandered the Latin Quarter in a dream, remnants of the previous day’s tear gas stinging my eyes, barricades improvised from torn-up paving stones all over the place. Everywhere I went I saw the CRS, looking like invaders from space in their gleaming black helmets, with chinstraps and visors, thick black uniforms, jackboots and heavy truncheons. They turned up out of nowhere in coaches with windows covered in wire mesh, clambered out and blocked off whole streets apparently at random. Everywhere they could, people gathered and talked politics. The mood was swinging: you could taste it in the air along with the gas and ashes. This wasn’t just another student demonstration, another Communist or Anarchist protest; this was civil war. Even the bourgeoisie were appalled at the violence of the police attacks. There were reports of pregnant women being beaten, of young men being tortured, their genitals shredded.
This was the aftermath of what later came to be known as ‘Bloody Monday’, when the ‘Nanterre Eight’ had appeared at the Sorbonne, triumphantly singing the ‘Internationale’, and sparked off riots.
I had missed April terribly while I was in Brussels, and now I was worried that she might have been hurt or arrested. I immediately tried to seek her out, but it wasn’t easy. She wasn’t at her student residence, nor at Brad’s hotel. I tried the Café de la Lune and various other watering holes in the area, but to no avail. Eventually I ran into someone I knew, who was able to tell me that he thought she was helping one of the student groups produce posters, but he didn’t know where. I gave up and went back to my room, unable to sleep, expecting her gentle rap on the door at any moment. It never came.
I saw her again on Thursday, putting up posters on the Rue St Jacques.
‘I was worried about you,’ I told her.
She smiled and touched my arm. For a moment I let myself believe that my concern actually mattered to her. I could understand her dedication to what was happening; after all, she was young, and it was her country. I knew that all normal social activities were on hold, that the politics of revolution had little time or space for the personal, for such bourgeois indulgences as love, but still I selfishly wanted her, wanted to be with her.
My chance came at the weekend, when the shit really hit the fan.
All week negotiations had been going back and forth between the government and the students. The university stayed closed and the students threatened to ‘liberate’ it. De Gaulle huffed and puffed. The Latin Quarter remained an occupied zone. On Friday the workers threw in their lot with the students and called for a general strike the following Monday. The whole country was on its knees in a way it hadn’t been since the German occupation.
Thus far I had been avoiding the demonstrations, not out of cowardice or lack of commitment, but because I was a British subject not a French one. By the weekend that no longer mattered. It had become a world struggle: us against them. We were fighting for a new world order. I was in. I had a stake. Besides, the university was closed so I didn’t even have a job to protect any more. And perhaps, somewhere deep down, I hoped that heroic deeds on the barricades might win the heart of a fair lady.
So confusing was everything, so long running and spread out the battle, that I can’t remember now whether it was Friday or Saturday. Odd that, the most important night of my life, and I can’t remember what night it was. No matter.
It all started with a march towards the Panthéon, red and black flags everywhere, the ‘Internationale’ bolstering our courage. I had found April and Brad earlier, along with Henri, Alain and Brigitte, in the university quadrangle looking at the improvised bookstalls, and we went to the march together. April had her arm linked through mine on one side, and Alain on the other.
It was about half-past nine when things started to happen. I’m not sure what came first, the sharp explosions of the gas grenades or the flash of a Molotov cocktail, but all of a sudden pandemonium broke out, and there was no longer an organized march, only a number of battle fronts.
In the melee, April and I split off, losing Brad and the rest, and we found ourselves among those defending the front on the Boulevard St Michel. Unfortunate drivers, caught in the chaos, pressed down hard on their accelerators, honked their horns and drove through red lights to get away, knocking pedestrians aside as they went. The explosions were all around us now and a blazing CRS van silhouetted figures throwing petrol bombs and pulling up paving stones for the barricades. The restaurants and cafes were all closing hurriedly, waiters ushering clients out into the street and putting up the shutters.
The CRS advanced on us, firing gas grenades continuously. One landed at my feet and I kicked it back at them. I saw one student fall to them, about ten burly police kicking him as he lay and beating him mercilessly with their truncheons. There was nothing we could do. Clouds of gas drifted from the canisters, obscuring our view. We could see distant flames, hear the explosions and the cries, see vague shadows bending to pick up stones to throw at the darkness. The CRS charged. Some of us had come armed with Molotov cocktails and stones, but neither April nor I had any weapons, any means to defend ourselves, so we ran.
We got separated from the others, just the two of us now, and we were both scared. This was the worst the fighting had been so far. The demonstrators weren’t just taking what the CRS dished out, they were fighting back, and that made the police even more vicious. They would show no quarter, neither with a woman nor a foreign national. We could hardly see for the tears streaming from our eyes as we tried to get away from the advancing CRS, who seemed to have every side street blocked off.
‘Come on,’ I said, taking April’s hand in mine. ‘This way.’
We jumped the fence and edged through the pitch-dark Luxembourg Gardens, looking for an unguarded exit. When we found one, we dashed out and across to the street opposite. A group of CRS saw us and turned. Fortunately, the street was too narrow and the buildings were too high for the gas guns. The police fired high in the air and most of the canisters fell harmlessly onto the roofs above us. Nobody gave chase.
Hand in hand, we made our way through the dark back streets to my pension, which, though close to the fighting, seemed so far unscathed. We ran up to my tiny room and locked the door behind us. Our eyes were streaming, and both of us felt a little dizzy and sick from the tear gas, but we also felt elated from the night’s battle. We could still hear the distant explosions and see flashes and flames, like Guy Fawkes Night back in England. Adrenalin buzzed in our veins.
Just as I can’t say exactly what night it was, I can’t say exactly who made the first move. All I remember is that suddenly the room seemed too small for the two of us, our bodies were pressed together and I was tasting those moist, pink lips for the first time, savouring her small, furtive tongue in my mouth. My legs were like jelly.
‘You know when I came here the other morning and you were in bed?’ April said as she unbuttoned my shirt.
‘Yes,’ I said, tugging at her jeans.
She slipped my shirt off my shoulders. ‘I wanted to get into bed with you.’
I unhooked her bra. ‘Why didn’t you?’
‘I didn’t think you wanted me.’
We managed to get mostly undressed before falling onto the bed. I kissed her breasts and ran my hands down her naked thighs. I thought I would explode with ecstasy when she touched me. Then she was under me, and I buried myself in her, heard her sharp gasp of pleasure.
At last, April was mine.
I lived on the memory of April’s body, naked beside me, the two of us joined in love, while the country went insane. I didn’t see her for three days, and even then we were part of a group; we couldn’t talk intimately. That was what things were like then; there was little place for the individual. Everything was chaos. Normal life was on hold, perhaps never to be resumed again.
The university was closed, the campus hardly recognizable. The pillars in the square were plastered with posters of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Che Guevara. There was a general strike. Everything ground to a halt: the Metro, buses, coal production, railways. Everywhere I walked I saw burned-out vans and cars, gutted news kiosks, piles of paving stones, groups of truncheon-swinging CRS. People eating in the cafes had tears streaming down their faces from the remnants of tear gas in the morning-after air.
And every morning was a morning after.
I spotted Brad alone in a side street one night not long after dark, and as I had been wanting to talk to him about April, I thought I might never get a better opportunity. He was on his way to a meeting, he said, but could spare a few minutes. We took the steps down to the Seine by the side of the Pont St Michel, where we were less likely to get hassled by the CRS. It was dark and quiet by the river, though we could hear the crack of gas guns and explosions of Molotovs not so far away.
‘Have you talked to April recently?’ I asked him.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Why?’
‘I was wondering if… you know… she’d told you…?’
‘Told me what?’
‘Well…’ I swallowed. ‘About us.’
He stopped for a moment, then looked at me and laughed. ‘Oh, yes,’ he said. ‘Yes, she did, as a matter of fact.’
I was puzzled by his attitude. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘is that all you have to say?’
‘What do you want me to say?’
‘Aren’t you angry?’
‘Why should I be angry? It didn’t mean anything.’
I felt an icy fear grip me. ‘What do you mean, it didn’t mean anything?’
‘You know. It was just a quickie, a bit of a laugh. She said she got excited by the street fighting and you happened to be the nearest man. It’s not the first time, you know. I don’t expect April to be faithful or any of that bourgeois crap. She’s her own woman.’
‘What did you say?’
‘I said it didn’t mean anything. You don’t think she could be serious about someone like you, do you? Come off it, Richard, with your tatty jeans and your little goatee beard. You think you’re a real hip intellectual, but you’re nothing but a joke. That’s all you were to her. A quickie. A laugh. A joke. She came straight to me afterwards for a real-’
The blow came from deep inside me and my fist caught him on the side of his jaw. I heard a sharp crack, distinct from the sound of a distant gas gun, and he keeled over into the Seine. We were under a bridge and it was very dark. I stopped, listened and looked around, but I could see no one, hear only the sounds of battle in the distance. Quickly, my blood turning to ice, I climbed the nearest stairs and re-entered the fray.
I had never imagined that love could turn to hatred so quickly. Though I had fantasized about getting rid of Brad many times, I had never really intended to harm him, and certainly not in the way, or for the reason, that I did. I had never thought of myself as someone capable of killing another human being.
They pulled his body out of the Seine two days later, and the Anarchists claimed that he had been singled out and murdered by the CRS. Most of the students were inclined to believe this, and another bloody riot ensued.
As for me, I’d had it. Had it with April, had it with the revolution and had it with Paris. If I could have, I would have left for London immediately, but the cross-Channel ferries weren’t operating and Skyways had no vacancies for some days. What few tourists remained trapped in Paris were queuing for buses to Brussels, Amsterdam or Geneva, anywhere as long as they got out of France.
Mostly, I felt numb in the aftermath of killing Brad, though this was perhaps more to do with what he had told me about April than about the act itself, which had been an accident, and for which I didn’t blame myself.
April. How could she deceive me so? How could she be so cold, so cruel, so callous? I meant nothing to her, just the nearest man to scratch her itch.
A quickie. A joke.
I saw her only once more, near the Luxembourg Gardens, the same gardens we jumped into that marvellous night a million years ago, and as she made to come towards me I took off into a side street. I didn’t want to talk to her again, didn’t even want to see her. And it wasn’t only April. I stayed away from all of them: Henri, Alain, Brigitte, Nadine, the lot of them. To me they had all become inextricably linked with April’s humiliation of me, and I couldn’t bear to be with them.
One day Henri managed to get me aside and told me that April had committed suicide. He seemed angry rather than sad. I stared at him in disbelief. When he started to say something more, I cut him off and fled. I don’t think anyone knew that I had killed Brad, but clearly April lamented his loss so much that she no longer felt her life was worth living. He wasn’t worth it, I wanted to say, remembering the things he had told me under the bridge that night. If anyone was the killer, it was Brad not me. He had killed my love for April, and now he had killed April.
I refused to allow myself to feel anything for her.
The people at Skyways said I might have some luck if I came out to the airport and waited for a vacancy on standby, which I did. Before I left, I glanced around my room one last time and saw nothing I wanted to take with me, not even April’s silk scarf, which I had kept. So, in the clothes I was wearing, with the 500 francs that was all the Bank of France allowed to me withdraw, I left the country and never went back.
I think it must be the memory of tear gas that makes my eyes water so. I wipe them with the back of my hand and the waiter comes to ask me if I am all right. I tell him I am and order another pichet. I have nowhere else to go except the grave; I might as well stay here and drink myself to death. What is the point of another miserable six months on earth anyway?
The girl who reminds me of April crushes out her cigarette and twists a strand of hair. Her lover is late. I dream of consoling her, but what have I to offer?
‘Professor Dodgson? Richard? Is that you?’
I look up slowly at the couple standing over me. The man is grey-haired, distinguished looking, and there is something about him… His wife, or companion, is rather stout with grey eyes and short salt and pepper hair. Both are well dressed, healthy looking, the epitome of the Parisian bourgeoisie.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage.’
‘Henri Boulanger,’ he says. ‘I was once your student. My wife, Brigitte, was also a student.’
‘Henri? Brigitte?’ I stand to shake his hand. ‘Is it really you?’
He smiles. ‘Yes. I wasn’t sure about you at first. You haven’t changed all that much in the face, the eyes, but you… perhaps you have lost weight?’
‘I’m ill, Henri. Dying, in fact. But please sit down. Be my guests. Let’s share some wine. Waiter.’
Henri looks at Brigitte, who nods, and they sit. She seems a little embarrassed, uncomfortable, though I can’t for the life of me imagine why. Perhaps it is because I told them I am dying. No doubt many people would feel uncomfortable sitting in a cafe drinking wine with death.
‘Funnily enough,’ I tell them, ‘I was just thinking about you. What are you doing here?’
Henri beams. ‘Now I’m the professor,’ he says with great pride. ‘I teach literature at the Sorbonne.’
‘Good for you, Henri. I always believed you’d go far.’
‘It’s a pity you couldn’t have stayed around.’
‘They were difficult times, Henri. Interesting, as the Chinese say.’
‘Still… It was a sad business about that girl. What was her name?’
‘April?’ I say, and I feel an echo of my old love as I say her name. Ap-reel.
‘April. Yes. That was around the time you went away.’
‘My time here was over,’ I tell him. ‘I had no job, the country was in a state of civil war. It wasn’t my future.’
Henri frowns. ‘Yes, I know. Nobody blames you for getting out… it’s not that…’
‘Blames me for what, Henri?’
He glances at Brigitte, who looks deep into her glass of wine. ‘You remember,’ he says. ‘The suicide? I told you about it.’
‘I remember. She killed herself over an American boy the CRS beat to death.’
‘Brad? But that wasn’t… I mean…’ He stares at me, wide-eyed. ‘You mean you don’t know?’
‘Don’t know what?’
‘I tried to tell you at the time, but you turned away.’
‘Tell me what?’
Brigitte looks up slowly from her wine and speaks. ‘Why did you desert her? Why did you turn your back on her?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You rejected her. You broke her heart. The silly girl was in love with you, and you spurned her. That’s why she killed herself.’
‘That’s ridiculous. She killed herself because of the American.’
Brigitte shakes her head. ‘No. Believe me, it was you. She told me. She could talk only about you in the days before…’
‘Brad was jealous. Don’t you understand? She was never more than a casual girlfriend to him. He wanted more, but she fell for you.’
I shake my head slowly. I can’t believe this. Can’t allow myself to believe this. The world starts to become indistinct, all shadows and echoes. I can’t breathe. My skin tingles with pins and needles. I feel a touch on my shoulder.
‘Are you all right? Richard? Are you all right?’
It is Henri. I hear him call for a brandy and someone places a cool glass in my hand. I sip. It burns and seems to dispel the mist a little. Brigitte rests her hand on my arm and leans forward. ‘You mean you really didn’t know?’
I shake my head.
‘Henri tried to tell you.’
‘Brad,’ I whisper. ‘Brad told me she just used me, that she thought I was a joke. I believed him.’
Henri and Brigitte look at one another, then back at me, concern and pity in their eyes. A little more than that in Henri’s, too: suspicion. Maybe everybody wasn’t convinced that the CRS had killed Brad after all.
‘He was jealous,’ Brigitte repeats. ‘He lied.’
Suddenly, I start to laugh, which horrifies them. But I can’t help myself. People turn and look at us. Henri and Brigitte are embarrassed. When the laughter subsides, I am left feeling hollow. I sip more brandy. Henri has placed his cigarettes on the table. Gauloises, I notice.
‘May I?’ I ask, reaching for the packet, even though I haven’t smoked in twenty years.
I light a Gauloise. Cough a little. What does it matter if I get lung cancer now? I’m already as good as dead. After a few puffs, the cigarette even starts to taste good, brings back, as tastes and smells do so well, even more memories of the cafes and nights of 1968. I begin to wonder whatever happened to that silk scarf I left in the drawer at my pension. I wish I could smell her jasmine scent again.
Outside, the girl’s lover arrives. He is young and handsome and he waves his arms as he apologizes for being late. She is sulky at first, but she brightens and kisses him. He runs his hand down her smooth, olive cheek and I can smell tear gas again.
THE GOOD PARTNER
AN INSPECTOR BANKS STORY
The louring sky was black as a tax inspector’s heart when Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks pulled up outside 17 Oakley Crescent at eight o’clock one mid-November evening. An icy wind whipped up the leaves and set them skittering around his feet as he walked up the path to the glass-panelled door.
Detective Constable Susan Gay was waiting for him inside, and Peter Darby, the police photographer, was busy with his new video recorder. Between the glass coffee table and the brick fireplace lay the woman’s body, blood matting the hair around her left temple. Banks put on his latex gloves, then bent and picked up the object beside her. The bronze plaque read, ‘Eastvale Golf Club, 1991 Tournament. Winner: David Fosse.’ There was blood on the base of the trophy. The man Banks assumed to be David Fosse sat on the sofa staring into space.
A pile of photographs lay on the table. Banks picked them up and flipped through them. Each was dated 13/11/93 across the bottom. The first few showed group scenes – red-eyed people eating, drinking and dancing at a banquet of some kind – but the last ones told a different story. Two showed a handsome young man in a navy blue suit, white shirt and garish tie, smiling lecherously at the photographer from behind a glass of whisky. Then the scene shifted to a hotel room, where the man had loosened his tie. None of the other diners were to be seen. In the last picture, he had also taken off his jacket. The date had changed to 14/11/93.
Banks turned to the man on the sofa. ‘Are you David Fosse?’ he asked.
There was a pause while the man seemed to return from a great distance. ‘Yes,’ he said finally.
‘Can you identify the victim?’
‘It’s my wife, Kim.’
‘I… I was out taking the dog for a walk. When I got back I found…’ He gestured towards the floor.
‘When did you go out?’
‘Quarter to seven, as usual. I got back about half past and found her like this.’
‘Was your wife in when you left?’
‘Was she expecting any visitors?’
He shook his head.
Banks held out the photos. ‘Have you seen these?’
Fosse turned away and grunted.
‘Who took them? What do they mean?’
Fosse stared at the Axminster.
‘I don’t know.’
‘This date, 13 November. Last Saturday. Is that significant?’
‘My wife was at a business convention in London last weekend. I assume they’re the pictures she took.’
‘What kind of convention?’
‘She’s involved in servicing home offices and small businesses. Servicing,’ he sneered. ‘Now there’s an apt term.’
Banks singled out the man in the gaudy tie. ‘Do you know who this is?’
‘No.’ Fosse’s face darkened and both his hands curled into fists. ‘No, but if I ever get hold of him-’
‘Mr Fosse, did you argue with your wife about the man in these photographs?’
Fosse’s mouth dropped. ‘They weren’t here when I left.’
‘How do you explain their presence now?’
‘I don’t know. She must have got them out while I was taking Jasper for a walk.’
Banks looked around the room and saw a camera on the sideboard, a Canon. It looked like an expensive auto-focus model. He picked it up carefully and put it in a plastic bag. ‘Is this yours?’ he asked Fosse.
Fosse looked at the camera. ‘It’s my wife’s. I bought it for her birthday. Why? What are you doing with it?’
‘It may be evidence,’ said Banks, pointing at the exposure indicator. ‘Seven pictures have been taken on a new film. I have to ask you again, Mr Fosse, did you argue with your wife about the man in these photos?’
‘And I’ll tell you again. How could I? They weren’t there when I went out, and she was dead when I got back.’
The dog barked from the kitchen. The front door opened and Dr Glendenning walked in, a tall, imposing figure with white hair and a nicotine-stained moustache.
Glendenning glanced sourly at Banks and Susan and complained about being dragged out on such a night. Banks apologized. Though Glendenning was a Home Office pathologist, and a lowly police surgeon could pronounce death, Banks knew that Glendenning would never have forgiven them had they not called him.
As the Scene-of-Crime team arrived, Banks turned to David Fosse and said, ‘I think we’d better carry on with this down at headquarters.’
Fosse shrugged and stood up to get his coat. As they left, Banks heard Glendenning mutter, ‘A golf trophy. A bloody golf trophy! Sacrilege.’
‘Do you think he did it, sir?’ Susan Gay asked Banks.
Banks swirled the inch of Theakston’s XB at the bottom of his glass and watched the patterns it made. ‘I don’t know. He certainly had means, motive and opportunity. But something about it makes me uneasy.’
It was almost closing time, and Banks and Susan sat in the warm glow of the Queen’s Arms having a late dinner of microwaved steak and kidney pud, courtesy of Cyril, the landlord, who was used to their unsociable hours. Outside, rain lashed against the red and amber window panes.
Banks pushed his plate away and lit a cigarette. He was tired. The Fosse call had come in just as he was about to go home after a long day of paperwork and boring meetings.
They had learned little more during a two-hour interrogation at the station. Kim Fosse had left for London on Friday and returned on Monday with her business partner, Norma Cheverel. The convention had been held at the Ludbridge Hotel in Kensington.
David Fosse maintained his innocence, but sexual jealousy made a strong motive, and now he was languishing in the cells under Eastvale Divisional Headquarters. Languish was perhaps too strong a word, as the cells were as comfortable as many bed and breakfasts, and the food and service much better. The only problem was that you couldn’t open the door and go for a walk in the Yorkshire Dales when you felt like it.
They learned from the house-to-house that Fosse did walk the dog – several people had seen him – and not even Dr Glendenning could pinpoint time of death to within the forty-five minutes he was out of the house.
Fosse could have murdered his wife before he left or when he got home. He could also have nipped back around the rear, where a path ran by the river, got into the house unseen the back way, then resumed his walk.
‘Time, ladies and gentlemen please,’ called Cyril, ringing his bell behind the bar. ‘And that includes coppers.’
Banks smiled and finished his beer. ‘There’s not a lot more we can do tonight, anyway,’ he said. ‘I think I’ll go home and get some sleep.’
‘I’ll do the same.’ Susan reached for her overcoat.
‘First thing in the morning,’ said Banks, ‘we’ll have a word with Norma Cheverel, see if she can throw any light on what happened in London last weekend.’
Norma Cheverel was an attractive woman in her early thirties with a tousled mane of red hair, a high freckled forehead and the greenest eyes Banks had ever seen. Contact lenses, he decided uncharitably, perhaps to diminish the sense of sexual energy he felt emanate from her.
She sat behind her desk in the large carpeted office, swivelling occasionally in her executive chair. After her assistant had brought coffee, Norma pulled out a long cigarette and lit up. ‘One of the pleasures of being the boss,’ she said. ‘The buggers can’t make you stop smoking.’
‘You’ve heard about Kim Fosse, I take it?’ Banks asked.
‘On the local news last night. Poor Kim.’ She shook her head.
‘We’re puzzled about a few things. Maybe you can help us?’
‘Did you notice her taking many photographs at the convention?’
Norma Cheverel frowned. ‘I can’t say as I did, really, but there were quite a few people taking photographs there, especially at the banquet. You know how people get silly at conventions. I never could understand this mania for capturing the moment. Can you, Chief Inspector?’
Banks, whose wife, Sandra, was a photographer, could understand it only too well, though he would have quibbled with ‘capturing the moment’. A good photographer, a real photographer, Sandra had often said, did much more than that; she transformed the moment. But he let the aesthetics lie.
Norma Cheverel was right about the photo mania, though. Banks had also noticed that since the advent of cheap, idiot-proof cameras every Tom, Dick and Harry had started taking photos indoors. He had been half-blinded a number of times by a group of tourists ‘capturing the moment’ in some pub or restaurant. It was almost as bad as the mobile-phone craze, though not quite.
‘Did Kim Fosse share this mania?’ he asked.
‘She had a fancy new camera. She took it with her. That’s all I can say, really. Look, I don’t-’
‘Bear with me, Ms Cheverel.’
Banks, who reserved the familiarity of first-name terms to exercise power over suspects, not to interview witnesses, went on. ‘Do you know if she had affairs?’
This time Norma Cheverel let the silence stretch. Banks could hear the fan cooling the microchip in her computer. She stubbed out her long cigarette, careful to make sure it wasn’t still smouldering, sipped some coffee, swivelled a little, and said, ‘Yes. Yes, she did. Though I wouldn’t really describe them as affairs.’
‘How would you describe them?’
‘Just little flings, really. Nothing that really meant anything to her.’
‘She didn’t usually mention names.’
‘Did she have a fling in London last weekend?’
‘Yes. She told me about it on the way home. Look, Chief Inspector, Kim wasn’t a bad person. She just needed something David couldn’t give her.’
Banks took a photograph of the man in the navy blue suit from his briefcase and slid it across the desk. ‘Know him?’
‘It’s Michael Bannister. He’s with an office-furnishings company in Preston.’
‘And did Kim Fosse have a fling with him that weekend?’
Norma swivelled and bit her lip. ‘She didn’t tell me it was him.’
She shrugged. ‘He’s married. Not that that means much these days. I’ve heard he’s very much in love with his wife, but she’s not very strong. Heart condition, or something.’ She sniffled, then sneezed and reached for a tissue.
‘What did Kim tell you about last weekend?’
Norma Cheverel smiled an odd, twisted little smile from the corner of her lips. ‘Oh, Chief Inspector, do you really want all the details? Girl talk about sex is so much dirtier than men’s, you know.’
Though he felt himself reddening a little, Banks said, ‘So I’ve been told. Did she ever express concern about her husband finding out?’
‘Oh, yes. She told me under no circumstances to tell David. As if I would. He’s very jealous and he has a temper.’
‘Was he ever violent towards her?’
‘Just once. It was the last time we went to a convention, as a matter of fact. Apparently he tried to phone her in her room after midnight – some emergency to do with the dog – and she wasn’t there. When she got home he lost his temper, called her a whore and hit her.’
‘How long had they been married?’
Norma sniffled again and blew her nose. ‘Four years.’
‘How long have you and Kim Fosse been in business together?’
‘Six years. We started when she was still Kim Church. She’d just got her MBA.’
‘How did the partnership work?’
‘Very well. I’m on the financial side and Kim dealt with sales and marketing.’
‘Are you married?’
‘I don’t see that it’s any of your business, Chief Inspector, but no, I’m not. I guess Mr Right just hasn’t turned up yet,’ she said coldly, then looked at her gold wristwatch. ‘Are there any more questions?’
Banks stood up. ‘No, that’s all for now. Thank you very much for your time.’
She stood up and walked around the desk to show him to the door. Her handshake on leaving was a little brisker and cooler than it had been when he arrived.
‘So Kim Fosse was discreet, but she took photographs,’ said Susan when they met up in Banks’s office later that morning. ‘Kinky?’
‘Could be. Or just careless. They’re pretty harmless, really.’ The seven photographs from the film they had found inside the camera showed the same man in the hotel room on the same date, 14/11/93.
‘Michael Bannister,’ Susan read from her notes. ‘Sales director for Office Comforts Ltd, based in Preston, Lancashire. Lives in Blackpool with his wife, Lucy. No children. His wife suffers from a congenital heart condition, needs constant pills and medicines, lots of attention. His workmates tell me he’s devoted to her.’
‘A momentary lapse, then?’ Banks suggested. He walked over to his broken Venetian blind and looked out on the rainswept market square. Only two cars were parked there today. The gold hands on the blue face of the church clock stood at eleven thirty-nine.
‘It happens, sir. Maybe more often than we think.’
‘I know. Reckon we’d better go easy approaching him?’
‘No sense endangering the wife’s health, is there?’
‘You’re right. See if you can arrange to see him at his office.’ Banks looked out of the window and shivered. ‘I don’t much fancy a trip to the seaside in this miserable weather anyway.’
The drive across the Pennines was a nightmare. All the way along the A59 they seemed to be stuck behind one lorry or another churning up gallons of filthy spray. Around Clitheroe, visibility was so poor that traffic slowed to a crawl. The hulking whale-shapes of the hills that flanked the road were reduced to faint grey outlines in the rain-haze. Banks played his Miles Davis Birth of the Cool tape, which Susan seemed to enjoy. At least, she didn’t complain.
The office building on Ribbleton Lane, just east of the city centre, was three-storey red-brick. The receptionist directed them to Bannister’s office on the second floor.
In the anteroom, a woman sat clicking away at a computer keyboard. Curly-haired, plump, in her forties. She came over and welcomed them. ‘Hello, I’m Carla Jacobs. I’m Mr Bannister’s secretary. He’s in with someone at the moment, but he won’t be a minute. He knows you’re coming.’
Banks and Susan looked at the framed photographs of company products and awards on the walls as they waited. All the time, Banks sensed Carla Jacobs staring at the back of his head. After a couple of minutes, he turned around just in time to see her avert her gaze.
‘Is anything wrong?’ he asked.
She blushed. ‘No. Well, not really. I mean, don’t think I’m being nosy, but is Mr Bannister in some kind of trouble?’
‘Why do you ask?’
‘It’s just that I’m a good friend of Lucy’s, that’s Mr Bannister’s wife, and I don’t know if you know, but-’
‘We know about her health problems, yes.’
‘Good. Good. Well…’
‘Have you any reason to think Mr Bannister might be in trouble?’
She raised her eyebrows. ‘Oh, no. But it’s not every day we get the police visiting.’
At that moment the inner door opened and a small ferret-faced man in an ill-fitting suit flashed a smile at Carla as he scurried out. In the doorway stood the man in the photographs. Michael Bannister. He beckoned Banks and Susan in.
It was a large office, with Bannister’s work desk, files and bookcases taking up one half and a large oval table for meetings in the other. They sat at the table, so well polished Banks could see his reflection in it, and Susan took out her notebook.
‘I understand you attended a business convention in London last weekend?’ Banks started.
‘Yes. Yes, I did.’
‘Did you meet a woman there called Kim Fosse?’
Bannister averted his eyes. ‘Yes.’
Banks showed him a photograph of the victim, as she had been in life. ‘Is this her?’
‘Did you spend the night with her?’
‘I don’t see what that’s got-’
‘Look, for Christ’s sake. My wife…’
‘It’s not your wife we’re asking.’
‘What if I did?’
‘Did she take these photographs of you?’ Banks fanned the photos in front of him.
‘Yes,’ he said.
‘So you slept with Kim Fosse and she took some photographs.’
‘It was just a lark. I mean, we’d had a bit to drink, I-’
‘I understand, sir,’ said Banks. ‘You don’t have to justify yourself to me.’
Bannister licked his lips. ‘What’s this all about? Will it go any further?’
‘I can’t say,’ said Banks, gesturing for Susan to stand up. ‘It depends. We’ll keep you informed.’
‘Good Lord, man,’ said Bannister. ‘Please. Think of my wife.’ He looked miserably after them, and Banks caught the look of concern on Carla Jacobs’s face.
‘That was a bit of a wasted journey, wasn’t it, sir?’ Susan said on the way back to Eastvale.
‘Do you think so?’ said Banks, smiling. ‘I’m not at all sure, myself. I think our Mr Bannister was lying about something. And I’d like to know what Carla Jacobs had on her mind.’
Sandra was out. After Banks hung up his raincoat, he went straight into the living room of his south Eastvale semi and poured himself a stiff Laphroaig. He felt as if the day’s rain had permeated right to his bone marrow. He made himself a cheese and onion sandwich, checked out all the television channels, found nothing worth watching, and put some Bessie Smith on the CD player.
But ‘Woman’s Trouble Blues’ took a background role as the malt whisky warmed his bones and he thought about the Fosse case. Why did he feel so ill at ease? Because David Fosse sounded believable? Because he had felt Norma Cheverel’s sexual power and resented it? Because Michael Bannister had lied about something? And was Carla Jacobs in love with her boss, or was she just protecting Lucy Bannister? Banks fanned out the photographs on the coffee table.
Before he could answer any of the questions, Sandra returned from the photography course she was teaching at the local college. When she had finished telling Banks how few people knew the difference between an aperture and a hole in the ground, which Banks argued was a poor metaphor because an aperture was a kind of a hole, she glanced at the photos on the coffee table.
‘What are these, evidence?’ she asked, stopping herself before she touched them.
‘Go ahead,’ said Banks. ‘We’ve got all we need from them.’
Sandra picked up a couple of the group shots, six people in evening dress, each holding a champagne flute out towards the photographer, all with the red eyes characteristic of cheap automatic flash.
‘Ugh,’ said Sandra. ‘What dreadful photos.’
‘Snob,’ said Banks. ‘She doesn’t have as good a camera as you.’
‘Doesn’t matter,’ said Sandra. ‘A child of five could do a better job with a Brownie than these. What kind of camera was it, anyway?’
‘A Canon,’ said Banks, adding the model number. The identification tag on the evidence bag was etched in his memory.
Sandra put the photos down and frowned. ‘A what?’
Banks told her again.
‘It can’t be.’
Sandra leaned forward, slipped her long blonde tresses behind her ears and spread out the photos. ‘Well, they’ve all got red-eye,’ she said. ‘The camera you mentioned protects against red-eye.’
It was Banks’s turn to look puzzled.
‘Do you know what red-eye is?’ Sandra asked.
‘I don’t know an aperture from a hole in the ground.’
She nudged him in the ribs. ‘Be serious, Alan. Look, when you’re in a dark room, your pupils dilate, the iris opens to let in more light so you can see properly, just like an aperture on a camera. Right? You know what it’s like when you first walk into a dark place and your eyes slowly adjust?’
Banks nodded. ‘Go on.’
‘Well, when you’re subjected to a sudden, direct flash of light, the iris doesn’t have time to close. Red-eye is actually caused by the flash illuminating the blood vessels in the eye.’
‘Why doesn’t it happen with all flash photographs, then? Surely the whole point of flash is that you use it in the dark?’
‘Mostly, yes, but red-eye only happens when the flash is pointed directly at your iris. It doesn’t happen when the flash is held from above the camera. The angle’s different. See what I mean?’
‘Yes. But you don’t usually see people with hand-held flashes using cameras like that.’
‘That’s right. That’s because there’s another way of getting rid of red-eye. The more expensive models, like the one you just mentioned to me, set off a series of quick flashes first, before the exposure, and that gives the iris a chance to close. Simple, really.’
‘So you’re saying that these photographs couldn’t have been taken with that camera?’
‘Interesting,’ said Banks. ‘Very interesting.’
Sandra grinned. ‘Have I solved your case?’
‘Not exactly, no, but you’ve certainly confirmed some of the doubts I’ve been having.’ Banks reached for the telephone. ‘After what you’ve just told me, I think I can at least make sure that David Fosse sleeps in his own bed tonight.’
Norma Cheverel wasn’t pleased to see Banks and Susan late the next morning. She welcomed them with all the patience and courtesy of a busy executive, tidying files on her desk as Banks talked, twice mentioning a luncheon appointment that was fast approaching. For a while, Banks ignored her rudeness, then he said, ‘Will you stop your fidgeting and pay attention, Ms Cheverel?’
She gave him a challenging look. There was no ‘Call me Norma’ this time, and the sexual voltage was turned very low. But she sat as still as she could and rested her hands on the desk.
‘Yes, sir,’ she said. ‘You know, you remind me of an old school-teacher.’
‘Do you own a camera, Ms Cheverel?’
She shrugged. ‘I don’t know. Just one of those cheap things everybody uses these days.’
‘Does it have an automatic flash?’
‘Yes. They all do, don’t they?’
‘What about red-eye?’
‘What’s that? A late-night flight?’
Banks explained. She started playing with the files again. ‘I’d appreciate it if you’d let us examine your camera, Ms Cheverel.’
‘Why on earth-’
‘Because the photographs we found on the coffee table at the scene couldn’t possibly have been taken by Kim Fosse’s camera. That’s why.’ Banks explained what Sandra had told him, and what the result of tests earlier that morning had confirmed.
Norma Cheverel spread her hands. ‘So someone else took them. I still don’t see what that’s got to do with me.’
Banks glanced over to Susan, who said, ‘Ms Cheverel. Is it true that you lost almost fifty thousand pounds on a land speculation deal earlier this year?’
Norma Cheverel looked daggers at her and said to Banks through clenched teeth, ‘My business deals are no-’
‘Oh, but they are,’ said Banks. ‘In fact, Susan and I have been doing quite a bit of digging this morning. It seems you’ve made a number of bad investments these past couple of years, haven’t you? Where’s the money come from?’
‘The money was mine. All mine.’
Banks shook his head. ‘I think it came from the partnership.’ He leaned forward. ‘Know what else I think?’
‘What do I care?’
‘I think your cocaine habit is costing you a fortune, too, isn’t it?’
‘How dare you!’
‘I noticed how jittery you were, how you couldn’t keep still. And then there’s the sniffling. Funny how your cold seems better this morning. How much? Say ten, twenty thousand a year up your nose?’
‘I want my solicitor.’
‘I think you were cheating the partnership, Ms Cheverel. I think you knew you’d gone so far it was only a matter of time before Kim Fosse found out about it. You dealt with the accounting, you told us, and she was on the marketing side. What could have been better? It would take her a while to discover something was wrong, but you couldn’t keep it from your partner for ever, could you? So you came up with a plot to get rid of her and blame it on her husband. We only have your word for it that Kim Fosse was promiscuous. We only have your word that her husband was jealous enough to be violent.’
‘Ask anyone,’ said Norma Cheverel. ‘They’ll tell you. Everyone saw her black eye after the last convention.’
‘We know about that. David Fosse told us this morning. It was something he regretted very much. But the only person Kim confided in was you, which gave you every opportunity to build a mountain of lies and suspicion on a small foundation of truth.’
‘This is absurd.’ Norma swivelled and reached for the phone. ‘I’m calling my solicitor.’
‘Go ahead,’ said Banks. ‘But you haven’t been charged with anything yet.’
She held the phone halfway between her mouth and its cradle and smiled. ‘That’s right,’ she said. ‘You can make all the accusations you want but you can’t prove anything. That business about the camera doesn’t mean a thing, and you know that as well as I do.’
‘It proves that Kim Fosse didn’t take those photographs. Therefore, someone must have planted them to make it look as if she had been foolish as well as indiscreet.’
She put the phone down. ‘You can’t prove it was me. I defy you.’
Banks stood up. He was loath to admit it, but she was right. Short of finding someone who had seen her or her car in the vicinity of the Fosse house around the time of the murder, there was no proof. And Norma Cheverel wasn’t the kind to confess. The bluff was over. But at least Banks and Susan knew as they walked out of the office that Norma Cheverel had killed Kim Fosse. The rest was just a matter of time.
The break took two days to come, and it came from an unexpected source.
The first thing Banks did after his interview with Norma Cheverel was organize a second house-to-house of Fosse’s neighbourhood, this time to find out if anyone had seen Norma Cheverel or her car that evening. Someone remembered seeing a grey foreign car of some kind, which was about the closest they got to a sighting of Norma’s silver BMW.
Next, he got a list of all 150 conventioneers and set a team to phone and find out if anyone remembered Norma Cheverel taking photos on the evening of the banquet. They’d got through seventy-one with no luck so far, when Banks’s phone rang.
‘This is Carla Jacobs, Inspector Banks. I don’t know if you remember me. I’m Mr Bannister’s secretary.’
‘I remember you,’ said Banks. ‘What is it?’
‘Well, I was going to ask you the same thing. You see, I’ve been talking to Lucy, and she’s so worried that Michael is in trouble it’s damaging her health.’
‘Mr Bannister is in no trouble as far as I know,’ said Banks. ‘He just committed an unfortunate indiscretion, that’s all. No blame.’
‘But that’s just it,’ said Carla Jacobs. ‘You see, she said he’s been acting strangely. He’s depressed. He shuts himself away. He doesn’t talk to her. Even when he’s with her she says he’s withdrawn. It’s getting her down. I thought if you could talk to her… just set her at ease.’
Banks sighed. Playing nursemaid. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘I’ll call her.’
‘Oh, will you? Thank you. Thank you ever so much.’ She lowered her voice. ‘Mr Bannister is in his office now. She’ll be by the phone at home.’
Lucy Bannister answered on the first ring. ‘Yes?’
Banks introduced himself.
‘I’m so worried about Michael,’ she said, in that gushing manner of someone who’s been waiting all week to pour it all out. ‘He’s never like this. Never. Has he done something awful? Are you going to arrest him? Please, you can tell me the truth.’
‘No,’ said Banks. ‘No, he hasn’t, and no we’re not. He’s simply been helping us with our enquiries.’
‘That could mean anything. Enquiries into what?’
Banks debated for a moment whether to tell her. It would do no harm, he thought. ‘He was at a business convention in London last weekend. We’re interested in the movements of someone else who was there, that’s all.’
‘Are you sure that’s all?’
‘And it’s nothing serious?’
‘Not for your husband, no.’
‘Thank you. You don’t know what this means to me.’ He could hear the relief in her voice. ‘Because of my heart condition, you see, Michael is a bit over-protective. I don’t deny I’m weak, but sometimes I think he just takes too much upon himself.’ She paused and gave a small laugh. ‘I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. It must be because I’m so relieved. He’s a normal man. He has needs like any other man. I know he goes with other women and I never mention it because I know it would upset him and embarrass him. He thinks he keeps it from me to protect me from distress, and it’s just easier to let him think that.’
‘I can appreciate that,’ Banks said, only half listening. Why hadn’t he realized before? Now he knew what Michael Bannister had lied about, and why. ‘Look, Mrs Bannister,’ he cut in, ‘you might be able to help us. Do you think you could talk to your husband, let him know you know?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t want to upset him.’
Banks felt a wave of annoyance. The Bannisters were so damn busy protecting one another’s feelings that there was no room for the truth. He could almost hear her chewing her lip over the line. He tried to keep the irritation out of his voice. ‘It could be very important,’ he said. ‘And I’m sure it won’t do any harm. If that’s what he’s feeling guilty about, you can help him get over it, can’t you?’
‘I suppose so.’ Hesitant, but warming to the idea.
‘I’m sure you’d be helping him, helping your relationship.’ Banks cringed to hear himself talk. First a nursemaid, now a bloody marriage guidance counsellor.
‘Then you’ll do it? You’ll talk to him?’
‘Yes.’ Determined now. ‘Yes, I will, Mr Banks.’
‘And will you do me one more favour?’
‘If I can.’
‘Will you give him these telephone numbers and tell him that if he thinks of anything else he can call me without fear of any charges being made against him?’ He gave her his work and home phone numbers.
‘Ye-es.’ She clearly didn’t know what he meant, but that didn’t matter.
‘It’s very important that you tell him there’ll be no action taken against him and that he should talk to me personally. Is that clear?’
‘Yes. I don’t know what all this is about, but I’ll do as you say. And thank you.’
‘Thank you.’ Banks headed for a pub lunch in the Queen’s Arms. It was too early to celebrate anything yet, but he kept his fingers crossed as he walked in the thin November sunshine across Market Street.
Norma Cheverel’s luxury flat was every bit as elegant and expensively furnished as Banks had expected. Some of the paintings on her walls were originals, and her furniture was all hand-crafted, by the look of it. She even had an oak table from Robert Thompson’s workshop in Kilburn. Banks recognized the trademark: a mouse carved on one of the legs.
When Banks and Susan turned up at seven-thirty that evening, Norma had just finished stacking her dinner dishes in the machine. She had changed from her work outfit and wore black leggings, showing off her shapely legs, and a green woollen sweater that barely covered her hips. She sat down and crossed her legs, cigarette poised over the ashtray beside her.
‘Well,’ she said. ‘Do I need my solicitor yet?’
‘I think you do,’ said Banks. ‘But I’d like you to answer a few questions first.’
‘I’m not saying a word without my solicitor present.’
‘Very well,’ said Banks. ‘That’s your right. Let me do the talking, then.’
She sniffed and flicked a half-inch of ash into the ashtray beside her. Her crossed leg was swinging up and down as if some demented doctor were tapping the reflex.
‘I might as well tell you first of all that we’ve got Michael Bannister’s testimony,’ Banks began.
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘I think you do. It was you who took those photographs at the banquet and in the hotel room afterwards. It was you who spent the night with Michael Bannister, not Kim Fosse.’
‘No, it’s not. You told him later that if anyone asked he’d better say it was Kim Fosse he slept with or you’d tell his wife what he’d done. You knew Lucy had a weak heart, and that he thought such a shock might kill her.’
Norma had turned a shade paler. Banks scratched the small scar beside his right eye. Often, when it itched, it was telling him he was on the right track. ‘As it turns out,’ he went on, ‘Lucy Bannister was well aware that her husband occasionally slept with other women. It was just something they didn’t talk about. He thought he was protecting her feelings; she thought she was protecting his. I suggested they talk about it.’
‘Bastard,’ Norma Cheverel hissed. Banks didn’t know whether she meant him or Michael Bannister.
‘You seduced Michael Bannister and you planted incriminating photographs on Kim Fosse’s living-room table after you’d killed her in the hope that we would think her husband had done it in a jealous rage, a rage that you also helped set us up to believe. We’ve checked the processing services, too. I’m sure you chose Fotomat because it’s busy, quick and impersonal, but the man behind the counter remembers you picking up a film on Wednesday, not Kim Fosse. Beauty has its drawbacks, Norma.’
Norma got up, tossed back her hair and went to pour herself a drink. She didn’t offer Banks or Susan anything. ‘You’ve got a nerve,’ she said. ‘And a hell of an imagination. You should work for television.’
‘You knew that David Fosse walked the dog every evening, come rain or shine, between six forty-five and seven-thirty. It was easy for you to drive over to the house, park your car a little distance away, get the unsuspecting Kim to let you in, and then, still wearing gloves, hit her with the trophy and plant the photos. After that, all you had to do was convince us of her infidelity and her husband’s violent jealousy. There was even a scrap of truth in it. Except you didn’t bargain for Lucy Bannister, did you?’
‘This is ridiculous,’ Norma said. ‘What about the film that was in the camera? You can’t prove any of this.’
‘I don’t believe I mentioned that there was a film in the camera,’ said Banks. ‘I’m sure it seemed like a brilliant idea at the time, but that film couldn’t possibly have been taken by Kim’s camera, either, or Michael Bannister wouldn’t have had red eyes.’
‘This is just circumstantial.’
‘Possibly. But it all adds up. Believe me, Norma, we’ve got a case and we’ve got a good chance of making it stick. The first film wasn’t enough, was it? We might have suspected it was planted. But with a second film in the camera, one showing the same scene, the same person, then there was less chance we’d look closely at the photographic evidence. How did it happen? I imagine Kim had perhaps had a bit too much to drink that night and you put her to bed. When you did, you also took her room key. At some point during the night, when you’d finished with Michael Bannister, you rewound your second film manually in the dark until there was only a small strip sticking out of the cassette, then you went to Kim Fosse’s room and you put it in her camera, taking out whatever film she had taken herself and dumping it.’
‘Oh, I see. I’m that clever, am I? I suppose you found my fingerprints on this film?’
‘The prints were smudged, as you no doubt knew they would be, and you wiped the photographs and camera. When you’d loaded the film, you advanced it in the dark with the flash turned off and the lens cap on. That way the double exposure wouldn’t affect the already exposed film at all because no light was getting to it. When you’d wound it on so that the next exposure was set at number eight, you returned it to Kim Fosse’s room.’
‘I’m glad you think I’m so brilliant, Inspector, but I-’
‘I don’t think you’re brilliant at all,’ Banks said. ‘You’re as stupid as anyone else who thinks she can get away with the perfect crime.’
In a flash, Norma Cheverel picked up the ashtray and threw it at Banks. He dodged sideways and it whizzed past his ear and smashed into the front of the cocktail cabinet.
Banks stood up. ‘Time to call that solicitor, Norma.’
But Norma Cheverel wasn’t listening. She was banging her fists on her knees and chanting ‘Bastard! Bastard!’ over and over again.
SOME LAND IN FLORIDA
The morning they found Santa Claus floating face down in the pool, I had a hangover of gargantuan proportions. By midday I was starting to feel more human. By late afternoon, on my third Michelob at Chloe’s, I was almost glad to be alive again. Almost. I was also coming to believe that Santa’s death hadn’t been quite the accident it appeared.
‘Happy Hour’ at Chloe’s – a dim, horseshoe-shaped bar adjoining a restaurant – lasts from eleven a.m. to seven p.m., and by late afternoon the desperation usually starts to show through the cracks: the men tell the same joke for the third or fourth time; the women laugh just a little too loudly.
The afternoon after Santa’s death I found myself sitting opposite his small coterie. They were an odd group, the three of them who formed the central core. There was a grey-haired man, about sixty, who always looked ill to me, despite his brick-red complexion; a size fourteen woman in her mid forties who wore size ten clothes; and a pretty blonde, no older than about twenty-five. Maybe I’m being sexist or ageist or whatever, but I could only wonder why she was hanging around with such a bunch of losers. Christ, didn’t she know that if she played her cards right she could have me?
OK, so I’m no oil painting. But despite a bit of a beer gut, I’m reasonably well-preserved for a man of my age and drinking habits. I’ve still got a fine head of hair, even if it is grey. And I may be a bit grizzled and rough-edged, but I’ve been told I’m not without a certain cuddly quality.
Anyway, in my humble opinion, Santa – in reality Bud Schiller, a retired real estate agent from Kingston, Ontario – was a total asshole. Most people only needed to spend a couple of minutes in his company before heading for the hills. But not these three. Oh, no. They laughed at all his jokes; they hung on his every word. Of course, Schiller bought most of the drinks, but I thought his company was a hell of a price to pay for the occasional free beer.
‘So, who do you think did it, then, Jack?’
Al French had slipped onto the empty stool beside me. Al was a cross between a loner and a social butterfly: he seemed to know everyone, but like a butterfly he never lit in any one place for long. He said he was a writer from Rochester, but I’ve never seen any of his books in the shops. If you ask him to be more specific, he just gets evasive.
Al tipped back his bottle and his Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. He was a skinny little guy with a long nose, slicked back hair and a perpetual five o’clock shadow. Today he was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts.
‘It was an accident,’ I said.
‘Bullshit. And you know it.’ Al put his bottle down and whispered in my ear. He sounded as if he’d had a few already. ‘When a jerk like Bud Schiller dies, there has to be something more behind it than mere accident. Come on, buddy, you’re supposed to be the private eye.’
‘True. But I’m on vacation.’
‘A real gumshoe never rests until he discovers the truth and sees that justice is done.’
I rolled my eyes. ‘Where d’you read that, Al? An old Black Mask magazine?’
Al looked hurt. ‘I didn’t read it anywhere. I wrote it.’
‘You write private eye stories?’
‘We were talking about Bud Schiller’s murder.’
See what I mean? Evasive. And persistent. I ordered another round of Michelob and offered Al a cigar.
‘Cuban?’ he asked.
Al shrugged and took the cigar. ‘What they gonna do, huh? Arrest me for smoking?’
I laughed. ‘Seriously, Al, the cop I talked to said it was an accident. She asked me if I’d seen or heard anything unusual, then she left.’
I wasn’t going to tell Al, but I’d spent the evening sitting out in the lanai smoking a cigar, reading Robertson Davies and working my way through a bottle of Maker’s Mark. I could hear the singalong in the distance, and I remember thinking there was something absurd about a bunch of adults singing ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘White Christmas’ under the palms, especially with an asshole like Bud Schiller dressed as Santa leading them along. About nine-thirty, when the singalong ended, the print in my book was too blurred to read any more, and by ten o’clock or thereabouts, like most people in the Whispering Palms Condominium Estate, I was sawing logs.
‘He’d been drinking,’ I went on. ‘Mary Pasquale, the girl in the office, she told me he was three sheets to the wind. He must have been carrying his piano away after the party when he tripped near the edge of the pool and pitched in, head first.’
Al just raised his eyebrows.
He had a point. Even as I repeated the official line, something nagged at the back of my mind. As an ex-cop turned PI, I’ve seen enough weird crime scenes in my time, like the guy they found dead on the subway tracks and couldn’t find his head. But in this case, I had to ask myself two questions: first, wouldn’t Schiller have dropped the piano as he flung his arms out to protect himself from the fall?
And second, perhaps more to the point, why on God’s earth was Santa’s electric piano still plugged in?
‘I’ve noticed you talking to Schiller’s cronies,’ I said to Al quietly, so they wouldn’t overhear. ‘Do you know any of them well enough to think one of them killed him?’
Al shook his head. ‘Not really. Just casting the nets, you know. Ed Brennan, the red-faced one, he’s into the ponies. We went to the dog track at Naples once. But he’s a sore loser. Too desperate. And I played golf with Schiller a couple of times a few years back. He cheats. Did you know that?’
I didn’t rate cheating at golf as high on my list of motives for murder, but you never knew. ‘What about the girl?’
Al raised his eyebrows. ‘Ah-hah! Cherchez la femme, is it? Her name’s Karen Lee. Kindergarten teacher, I think.’
‘I wish my kindergarten teacher had looked like that.’
‘You’d’ve been too young to appreciate it. Besides, if you’ve got any thoughts in that direction, Jack, forget them. I warn you, she’s strictly an ice queen.’
I looked at Karen Lee. She was running her finger around the rim of a tall, frosted glass – abstractedly, rather than in any deliberately erotic way, but it still looked sexy as hell. She sure didn’t look like an ice queen to me.
‘How long has Schiller been coming here?’ I asked.
‘Longer than me, and I’ve been a regular for, what, nine, ten years now.’
‘How did they all hook up with each other?’
‘I don’t know, except they’re all from Canada. Every year Schiller would manage to gather a few luckless characters around him, but, like me, they didn’t usually come back for more. Ed was the first one who did, about four years ago. The blonde was next, year after, I think, then Mama Cass showed up just last year.’
‘What’s her real name?’
‘Ginny Fraser. Three time loser from Smith’s Falls, far as I can gather. Single mother. Welfare.’
‘How can she afford to come here?’
‘Don’t ask me.’
‘What does Ed do?’
‘Retired. Used to be a school caretaker in Waterloo.’
Kindergarten teacher; welfare case; retired caretaker. Not exactly high-paying jobs. And all Canadian. Still, that didn’t mean much. Half of Canada rents condos in Florida in the winter – and Canada’s a big country. I looked at them again, trying to read their faces for signs of guilt. Nothing. Karen was still running her finger around her glass rim. Ed was attempting to tell a joke, the kind, he said loudly, that he ‘just knew old Bud would have appreciated’. Only Ginny was laughing, chins wobbling, tears in her eyes.
I finished my beer, said goodbye to Al and left. When I got back to the condo that evening with a bottle of Chilean wine and a pound of jumbo shrimp for the barbecue, I tried to put Al’s suggestion of murder out of my mind.
But it wouldn’t go away.
The problem was what, if anything, was I going to do about it? Back home, I’m a licensed private investigator, but down here I’m not even a citizen.
Still, that evening out on the lanai, after the wine and the shrimps, I decided to keep my bourbon intake down. A good night’s sleep and no hangover would be the best bet for whatever tomorrow might bring.
The grass pricked my feet as I walked towards the pool the next morning for my pre-breakfast swim. Already the temperature was in the low seventies and the sky was robin’s egg blue.
I stood for a moment on the bridge and looked down into the murky water for the huge turtles and catfish. Evenings, just before dark, I’d got in the habit of feeding them chunks of bread. But there was nobody around this morning.
A couple of hundred yards away, over the swathe of dry grass, the squat, brown condo units were strung out in a circle around the central island, connected to the mainland by a wooden bridge over the narrow moat. The pool, the office and the tennis courts were all on the island. And that was Whispering Palms. Someone had bought some land in Florida and got very rich.
An old man, fuzz of white body hair against leathery skin, was lying out on a lounge chair catching the early rays. The scent of coconut sun screen mingled with the whiff of chlorine. The pool was still marked off by yellow police tape.
I noticed that the office door was ajar, and when I popped my head inside, I saw Mary sitting at her desk, staring into space. I like Mary. She’s about twenty-five, an athletic sort of girl with a swimmer’s upper body and a runner’s thighs. She has a shiny black pony tail and one of those open, friendly faces, the kind you trust on sight.
‘Oh, Mr Erwin. You startled me. You weren’t wanting to use the pool, were you?’
‘I was. But I see it’s still off-limits.’
A frown wrinkled Mary’s smooth, tanned brow. ‘Well, I mean, it’s not on account of the cops or anything,’ she said. ‘It’s just… well, I didn’t think the residents would like it, you know, swimming in a dead man’s water.’ She turned her nose up. ‘So I’ve called maintenance and they’re gonna clean it out and refill it all fresh. Should be ready by this afternoon. Sorry.’
‘No, you’re right. It’s a good idea,’ I said.
Most people probably would be put off by swimming in the same water where an electrocuted Santa Claus had floated around all night alone in the dark, but it didn’t bother me much. I had seen death close up more times than I cared to remember. Besides, people swam in the ocean all the time and thousands have died there over the centuries.
‘Mary,’ I asked, ‘do you happen to know who the last people to see Mr Schiller alive were?’
‘His friends. Mr Brennan, Miss Lee and Miss Fraser. They said he was fine when they left.’
Of course. The ubiquitous trio.
Mary shook her head. ‘Never could understand what Miss Lee saw in that group, pretty girl like her.’
So I was vindicated for thinking exactly the same thing yesterday. And if a young woman like Mary could think it too, it couldn’t be either ageist or sexist, could it?
‘Mind if I ask you something?’ Mary said with a frown.
‘Mr Schiller was a Canadian citizen, right?’
‘As far as I know.’
‘Well, I was worried, you know, like his relatives might come down and make some sort of lawsuit. What do you think?’
Aha, the great American paranoia raises its ugly head: lawsuits. ‘I’m no legal expert,’ I said.
‘You hear about things like that all the time, don’t you? I mean, they could sue for millions. I could be liable. It would ruin me.’ She laughed. ‘Even if they sued for hundreds it would bankrupt me. I could lose my job. I need this job, Mr Erwin. I need the money to go back to school.’
I smiled as reassuringly as I could and told her I didn’t think that would happen. We didn’t even know if Schiller had any next of kin, for a start. And she couldn’t be responsible for his behaviour when he was drunk.
‘But the cops said he must have tripped over that crack in the tiles.’
‘Come on, I’ll show you.’
We went outside. The old guy in the lounge chair was still working on his skin cancer. Near the side of the pool, Mary pointed out the crack. It didn’t look like much to me. I put my foot in front of it and slid forward slowly. My big toe slipped right over the crack and the rest of my foot followed. I could hardly even feel the rough edge of the tile. ‘It’s hardly enough to trip over,’ I said to Mary.
‘He was wearing flip-flops.’
‘Santa Claus was wearing flip-flops?’
‘I suppose that might make a difference. Even so… It’s still a long way from the water. Maybe six feet. Schiller was a little guy, only around five-four, wasn’t he?’
‘Yeah. I thought about that, too. But he must have been walking fast, or running, then he tripped and skidded in. Those tiles can get pretty slippery, especially if they’re wet.’
‘But wouldn’t the piano just rip out of the socket?’
Mary shrugged. ‘It was one of those ultra-light things,’ she said. ‘And it had a long cord.’
Still, I couldn’t help but wonder why the hell Santa Claus should be running towards the swimming pool in the dark with a live electric piano in his arms, no matter how tight he was or how light the piano.
A heron landed by the side of the moat. Just for a moment, I felt a slight shiver run up my spine to the hairs at the back of my neck. It was a sign I recognized. I was being watched. And not by the heron or the sunbather.
Mary turned and walked back to the office, sandals clip-clopping against the tiles. I followed her, admiring the way her thigh muscles rippled with each step. I felt strangely detached, though; I could admire the sculpted, athletic beauty of her body, but I didn’t feel attracted to her sexually. But, then, it had been a long time since I had been attracted to anyone sexually, except maybe Karen Lee.
Mary sat down at her desk again.
‘Look,’ I said, leaning forward and resting my hands on the warm wood, ‘I know this might sound strange to you, but I’d like you to do me a favour without telling anyone or asking too many questions. Do you think you could do that?’
Mary nodded slowly, tentatively. ‘Depends,’ she said, ‘on what it is.’
When I got back to the condo, it was time for breakfast, but without the swim, my appetite wasn’t up to much. I put on a pot of coffee, drank a glass of orange juice and ate a bowl of high-fibre bran. The healthy life.
Usually I took my second cup out to the lanai and worked on one of the cryptics from the Sunday Times book of crosswords. That was one thing always annoyed me about American newspapers: you couldn’t find a cryptic in any of them I’d seen. This morning, though, I took the two sheets of paper that Mary had printed out for me.
OK, so Schiller was alone at the pool after the sing-along, or so Ed, Karen and Ginny said. Anyone could have gone there in the dark, killed him and tried to make it look like an accident. And at least three people knew he was there: Ed, Karen and Ginny. Were they telling the truth?
There was some risk – there always is with murder – but it was minimal. Most of the residents are elderly and they’re usually in bed by ten. This isn’t like some of the places where you get kids drinking all night and skinny-dipping; there are no kids at Whispering Palms.
First, I looked over the list of condo owners I had persuaded Mary to print for me.
Schiller’s unit was owned on paper by Gardiner Holdings, registered in Grand Cayman Island. If that didn’t set alarm bells ringing in an old gumshoe’s mind, what would? But I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it meant.
Ginny Fraser’s unit was a timeshare, though Ginny herself wasn’t listed as owning any time.
Ed Brennan’s unit was registered to a Dr Joseph Brady in Waterloo, Canada, and Karen Lee’s to a travel agency called EscapeItAll, based in Sarasota.
One way or another, these four had all ended up at Whispering Palms, Fort Myers, Florida, and I was damned if I could see any reason other than pure chance.
So which one of them did it? And why? Or was it someone else?
I pushed my glasses back up the bridge of my nose and reached for the telephone. Being a private investigator from Toronto has some advantages in Florida.
When I’d finished on the phone I felt the need to go out for a drive. Not far. Maybe over the skyway to Sanibel and Captiva. Lunch at the Mucky Duck. Seafood and Harp lager. After all, I was on vacation, whatever Al said about gumshoes and the search for truth and justice.
But when I walked out to the car, I saw Karen Lee bent over the front tyre of her red Honda rental just a few parking spots down, white cotton shorts stretched taut over her ass.
I stood and admired the view for a while then walked towards her and asked if she could use any help. Why not? She could only tell me to get lost, that she was perfectly capable of fixing the tyre herself. Or she could accept my offer graciously.
She did the latter.
Turning on her haunches and shielding her eyes from the sun, she smiled and said, ‘Why, thanks, yes. I’d appreciate that.’ She had dimples at each corner of her mouth. Cute.
Then she stood up and brushed the dust off her hands. She was wearing a pink tank top, and a little sweat had darkened the cotton between her breasts.
‘Flat,’ she said.
A facetious reply formed in my mind, but before I could voice it she went on, ‘The tyre. I should have done something about it last night. I thought something was wrong, maybe a slow leak. But I couldn’t be bothered. Then, when I came out just now I saw it was flat.’
‘No problem,’ I said, and in no time we took off the flat and put on the spare.
‘Thanks a lot,’ said Karen, smiling. ‘It’s not that I’m helpless or anything. I mean, I know how to change a tyre. But-’
‘Forget it,’ I told her. ‘My pleasure.’
‘What I was going to say was it was nice to have a bit of company.’ And she smiled again, giving me the full benefit of her dimples and baby blues. The front of her tank top was even damper now and I could see beads of moisture on the tops of her breasts, between the tiny hairs. She had her hair tied back and fixed with barrettes, but a few strands had come loose and stuck to her flushed face. Some ice queen.
‘Hot, isn’t it,’ she said, waving her hand in front of her face. ‘Look, why don’t you come in and clean up? It’s the least I can do.’
I could have gone to my own place, just a few buildings down, but I’m no fool. I followed her up the steps to her second-storey unit. Inside, it was pretty much the same layout as mine: open-plan kitchen and living room, two bedrooms – one with its own bathroom – guest bathroom, and the lanai out front.
‘Sorry about the mess,’ Karen said, picking up a few magazines scattered on the sofa. ‘I wasn’t expecting company. Please go ahead. Use the bathroom.’
The bathroom was full of the mysterious paraphernalia of feminine beauty – potions, eyebrow pencils, little sponges, cotton wool, Q-tips. I washed the sweat and grime off my hands and face and flushed the toilet, using the noise to cover up the sound as I went through the drawers and cupboards. There was nothing out of the ordinary: soap, deodorant, shampoo, talcum, tampons, Advil, Maalox. The only interesting item was a bottle of Prozac. These days it seems half the world’s on Prozac.
When I got back to the living room, Karen had just finished tidying things into neat piles. She smiled. ‘Cold drink?’
‘A Coke would be great.’
‘I’ll just go freshen up.’ She looked down at her body and spread her arms, then seemed embarrassed by the gesture. In fact, now we were inside, her manner had grown much more nervous and I didn’t know how to put her at ease. Too many movies about the nice guy next door turning out to be a psycho, I suppose.
‘I’ll help myself,’ I said. ‘You go wash up.’
‘OK… I’ll… er… It’s in the fridge. I won’t be long. Are you sure you’ll be OK?’
‘I’ll be fine. Don’t worry.’
When she went into her bathroom, the lock clicked behind her. As soon as I heard the shower start up, I began a quick search, not knowing what the hell I was looking for. If Schiller had been murdered, Karen had to be a suspect. Much as I hoped she hadn’t done it, she had been one of the three to know where he was after the sing-along. And how drunk he was.
All I found out was that Karen was halfway through The Concrete Blonde; that she more than likely slept alone; that she favoured casual clothes but had a couple of expensive dresses; that she didn’t seem to watch videos very much; and that her musical tastes extended from Mozart to Alanis Morissette.
When she came out, she was wearing red shorts and a white shirt. Her hair was still damp from the shower and it hung in long hanks, framing her pale oval face.
‘There,’ she said, hoisting herself onto a stool at the kitchen counter. ‘That’s better. What a start to the day.’
I poured her a Coke. ‘I guess you must still be pretty upset about your friend dying?’ I said.
‘Bud. Yes. How did you…? Of course. I’ve seen you in Chloe’s, haven’t I? Always alone. No wife? Girlfriend?’
A definite hint of flirtation there, I thought. ‘My wife died three years ago. Auto accident.’
‘Oh, I’m so sorry. That must be terrible.’
I shrugged. ‘There’s good days and bad. Were you very close to Mr Schiller?’
She looked away. ‘Not really.’
‘I don’t mean to pry or anything,’ I said, ‘but were you… I mean, what drew you to him?’
‘I don’t know. We weren’t an item, if that’s what you’re getting at.’ She blushed. ‘I’d just been through a painful divorce. I was depressed. I suppose I came down here to escape… I don’t know… I guess maybe I succeeded. Bud and the others, they were my escape. It was all fun. No demands. Bud was a laugh. He never took anything seriously.’
‘You were one of the last people to see him alive, weren’t you?’
Karen nodded. ‘Yes. With Ed and Ginny.’
‘We’d all had a bit too much to drink. When everyone else left after the carols, we started joking around by the pool. I fell in. I wanted to go home and change out of my wet clothes, so the three of us came to my place. Bud said he had a couple of things to do, then he was going to turn in.’
‘Did he say what he had to do?’
‘No. Just a couple of things.’
‘Do you think he could have been meeting someone?’
‘I suppose so… I…’ She looked me in the eye. ‘Why?’
‘Just curious. How did he seem?’
‘He was very drunk.’ She frowned, then went on. ‘You know, I’ve thought time and time again that we should have done something, that I should have said something.’
‘Oh, made him come with us, something like that. Somehow I feel responsible.’
‘Don’t be silly. There’s no way you could have known.’
‘Even so… I can’t help feeling guilty.’ She held her hands up. ‘Look, I don’t know how we got into this, but it’s a beautiful day out there and I don’t want to get even more depressed.’
Interview over. ‘You’re right,’ I said, getting up. ‘I’d better be going myself.’
She walked me to the door. ‘Thanks for the help. It was nice talking to you.’
‘You too.’ Before she could close the door on me, I turned. ‘Don’t think this too presumptuous of me,’ I began, ‘but how would you like to come out for dinner or a drink tonight?’
‘Tonight?’ Her face dropped. ‘Oh, I can’t. I’m busy.’
I started to turn away. ‘It’s OK. I understand. Believe me. My mistake, especially after what you said about the divorce and all. I’m sorry.’
But she rested her warm hand on my arm. ‘It’s nothing like that,’ she said. ‘I don’t want you to think I’m making an excuse. I’m not. I really do have something on tonight. The three of us are having a sort of wake. I couldn’t miss it.’
Maybe this wasn’t the brush off, then. Heart thumping, fear of rejection bringing me out in a sweat, I persevered. ‘How about tomorrow night then?’
She smiled. ‘I’d love to. Really, I would.’
‘Great. Do you like seafood?’
‘How about the Big Fin?’
‘Fine. Look, I’ll meet you at the bar there at seven. I’ve got some running around to do first, and I’m not sure if I’ll have time to get back here. OK?’
‘Fine. Big Fin. Bar. Seven.’ I walked off, grinning like an idiot.
The phone started ringing, the way they do, the minute I stuck my key in the door that afternoon. I put the groceries I’d bought at Publix on the kitchen counter and picked up the extension.
‘Jack, it’s Mike.’
My partner. ‘You were quick.’
‘Well, partly it’s a slow week.’
‘And partly there’s not a hell of a lot to report.’
‘Go ahead anyway.’
‘Nothing on any of the people on the list. Squeaky clean, every one of them.’
‘What about Schiller?’
‘That’s the only interesting part. As far as I can make out, nobody knows him. I checked out the Kingston address you gave me. It’s owned by a couple called Renard. They confirmed that a man called Bud Schiller rents it from them and the cheques come in regularly.’
‘That they wouldn’t tell me. Anyway, I got the name of the guy next door to the Schiller place, and he said the house is empty most of the time.’
Now what the hell did that mean? ‘Anything else?’
‘That doctor in Waterloo, Joseph Brady, he checks out. He’s Edward Brennan’s family doctor, has been for years, and he rented the condo to Ed for the first time a few years back. Apparently the poor guy needed to recuperate from some illness – nothing specific, you know doctors – but I got the impression this Ed character had suffered various health problems on and off over-’
‘Mental or physical?’
‘Can’t say. But Brady’s a family doctor, Jack, not a shrink.’
‘OK. Go on.’
‘So it was a kind of convalescent holiday. He liked it and kept coming back.’
‘How about EscapeItAll?’
‘Perfectly legit. They own a few condos down the Gulf Coast and rent them through local agencies. Quite a lot of the Toronto travel agents do business with them, and the ones I talked to said they never had any problems.’
‘And the timeshare?’
‘Also legit. There is one thing, though. Virginia Fraser, one of the names you gave me?’
‘Right.’ Ginny Fraser.
‘I talked to the woman she rented from, and it turns out that the dates Fraser got weren’t available originally.’
‘So she paid over the odds.’
‘Ah-ha. On welfare, too. Is that all?’
‘Just about. Gardiner Holdings, that company in the Caymans? Looks like it’s the front of a front of a front. I couldn’t get even get a whiff of the real movers and shakers behind it.’
‘OK,’ I said. ‘Thanks a lot Mike. You did good work.’ Then I hung up and mulled over what I’d learned.
‘Gee, I dunno, Mr Erwin. I really shouldn’t be doing this,’ Mary said when she found the right key.
‘It’ll have to be cleaned out, anyway,’ I said.
‘Yeah, I know. It’s just… Still, you are a licensed private investigator, right?’
‘Right. And maybe we can check on next of kin, make sure no one’s gonna come down and file a lawsuit against you.’ I hated pressuring her that way, but I had to get inside Schiller’s condo if I was to get any further. I was now more or less convinced that someone – either one of his three pals or someone he had arranged to meet – had gone to the pool and murdered him. It would help if I could find out whether he had anything to hide.
Still biting her lip, Mary turned the key in the lock.
Schiller certainly travelled light. A quick search of the master bedroom revealed only warm-climate clothes and a tattered Tom Clancy paperback on the bedside table. No papers in the drawers, no photographs, nothing. The cops must have taken his passport. The bathroom held only what a single man’s bathroom would, and the guest bedroom was empty except for the bed, stripped down to its mattress. Kitchen and fridge contained the usual – milk, bread, condiments, a couple of TV dinners, cutlery, booze. By the looks of it, Schiller ate out a lot.
In the living room, the stereo, TV and VCR took up one corner. A cabinet under the VCR held a stock of tapes. One of the movies was from a local rental store, and it was overdue by two days. The tape was still in the machine.
‘I’ll take this back tomorrow,’ I said to Mary, casually slipping the tape back in the box.
Mary just nodded and glanced nervously at the door. ‘I think that’s about all,’ I said, ‘if you want to go now.’ Mary was out the front door like a shot. ‘You didn’t find anything about next of kin?’
‘Nothing. No news is good news. Don’t worry.’ She flashed an anxious smile. ‘I’ll try not to.’ And I hurried back to call the courier company. It was late, but with luck, they could get a package to Mike overnight.
‘Hang on… Just a minute…’ I sat up quickly. It felt like I had to drag myself a long way back from God knew where. I rubbed my eyes and checked my watch. Three-thirty in the afternoon. I must have dozed off after lunch. I opened the fridge and popped the tab on a can of Michelob, then picked up the phone again. ‘Yeah, go ahead, Mike. Sorry about that.’
‘No problem. I took the video down to Ident first thing this morning. It was a bit of a mess – must have been a popular movie down there – but Harry found a match you might be interested in.’
‘Schiller’s got a record?’
‘Not Schiller. The only prints we could find on file belong to a Sherman Smith.’
‘That rings a bell.’
‘It should do,’ he went on. ‘Remember that land scam twenty years ago? Smith defrauded hundreds of people out of their life savings.’
‘What was it, some land in Florida turned out to be swamp?’
‘Something like that. Smith disappeared with the money and was never seen or heard of again. In all there must’ve been over two or three million bucks.’
I whistled. ‘What happened?’
‘The Mounties followed the paper trail for a while, then they lost it. Smith never surfaced again.’
Except as Schiller, I thought. He probably split his time between Florida and the Cayman Islands, travelling on a phony Canadian passport but not staying in Canada for long. Too risky. ‘Do we recognize any of the victims’ names?’ I asked Mike.
I could almost hear him grinning over the phone. ‘I thought you’d never ask. As a matter of fact we do: a Mr Edward Brennan.’
Karen was sitting at a stool at the bar sipping something colourful and cluttered through a candy-striped straw. She was wearing a green silk off-the-shoulder number, one I had seen in her closet, with her legs crossed. I caught an eyeful of slim, tanned thigh as I walked towards her. She smiled and said hello. Her shiny blonde hair fell over her shoulder on one side, and she had tucked the other side behind her ear, fixing it there with a pink flower that matched her lipstick. Nice touch.
I must admit I’d been relieved to find out it was Ed who had the connection with Smith, not Karen. It didn’t mean he was the killer, of course, but it sure gave him one hell of a motive. I still had a lot of questions for Karen, though, and I wasn’t sure how, or if, I could mix business and pleasure.
I ordered a bourbon on the rocks and we walked through to the table. It was a tacky-looking kind of restaurant, with nets hanging from the ceilings and old barrels converted into chairs, but the food was always superb.
Karen examined the menu, then she said, ‘I’d like to start with some oysters. How about you?’
‘Fine by me.’ Oysters! For an ice queen? Maybe Al French had an agenda of his own? So we ordered a dozen oysters and a bottle of Californian champagne, followed by swordfish steak for me and coquilles Saint-Jacques for Karen. She avoided my eyes as the waiter lit candles on the table.
We chatted about this and that. Karen seemed nervous, on edge, attention all over the place, so much so that she seemed skittish. But just when I thought I’d lost her, she’d look me in the eye and come back with the kind of remark that showed she was there all the time, maybe even a step or two ahead.
‘Did you know Bud, Ed or Ginny back home?’ I asked when the subject came around to last night’s wake.
She shook her head. ‘One rule about a world you escape to is that neither it nor any of its inhabitants can exist in the world you regularly live in.’ She fingered the napkin ring on the table as she spoke, shadows flitting in the depths of her eyes.
‘I can understand that,’ I said, thinking it sounded like something out of a computer-game manual. The oysters arrived and we helped ourselves. ‘I suppose it’s an escape for me too.’
‘Is it? In what way?’
‘I used to come down here with my wife.’
Karen frowned. ‘Then it’s not an escape you’re after,’ she said. ‘It’s catharsis.’
‘Maybe you’re right. If so, it hasn’t happened yet.’
She put her hand lightly on mine. ‘Give it time, Jack. Give it time.’
We finished the oysters, and the main courses arrived. I tried to find a way to steer the conversation back to Bud Schiller. As usual, I couldn’t find a subtle way, so halfway through my swordfish, during a temporary lull, I said, ‘Remember when you told me the three of you went to your room and Bud stayed out by the pool?’
She nodded. ‘And you thought he might be meeting someone?’
‘That’s right. Did any of the others leave your room at any time?’
‘Not until later.’ She blushed. ‘Ed must have passed out there. I found him on the couch in the morning.’
‘Did Ed ever mention knowing Bud from before?’
Karen looked down at her plate and speared a scallop. ‘No.’ Then she looked back at me and her eyes widened. ‘What are you suggesting? That Ed murdered Bud? You can’t be serious?’
‘I don’t know, Karen. I’m just curious, that’s all.’
‘But why? Why are you interested? Are you a cop?’
‘I’m a private investigator,’ I told her, ‘but I’m not licensed to operate down here.’ I shrugged. ‘It just seemed suspicious to me, that’s all.’
I paused for a moment, then I jumped right in and told her about Schiller’s true identity and the land scam, in which one Edward Brennan lost his life’s savings. When I finished, Karen was pale. She excused herself to visit the washroom.
When she came back, she looked a lot better. She didn’t wear much make-up, but she had given herself a fresh coat of the basics and looked good as new.
‘I’m sorry for overreacting,’ she said. ‘Honestly, I’d never really considered that Bud’s death could have been deliberate. I suppose I was too busy blaming myself. But Ed…?’
‘I can’t be sure,’ I said. ‘But it doesn’t look good. Are you certain he never left your condo?’
‘He went over to his own unit to pick up some Scotch. I’d run out. But he wasn’t gone for more than ten minutes.’
‘Ten minutes was enough.’
‘What are you going to do?’
‘Tell the authorities, I suppose.’
She nodded slowly. ‘That would be the right thing to do, of course. But poor Ed. I don’t like the thought of him spending the rest of his life in jail. Can’t you just… you know… let it go?’
‘However much of an asshole Bud Schiller was, he didn’t deserve to die like that.’
‘You’re right,’ she whispered. ‘I’d like to go home.’
As I followed Karen’s Honda back to Whispering Palms, I was beginning to think that I’d blown my chances of a pleasant end to the evening. But she invited me up for a nightcap.
Once we were inside, she busied herself preparing the drinks, flitting nervously between fridge and cocktail cabinet, chattering brightly away. Ever since we got back, I’d sensed a certain tension between us and I thought it was sexual. When she walked past me to open the sliding glass door to the lanai, I put my hand out and touched her shoulder. She turned, gave me a swift peck on the cheek and said she had to go to the bathroom.
I gazed out at the dark island beyond the lanai, the Christmas lights on the bridge, drink in hand, waiting for her. What did the peck on the cheek mean? Was it promise or consolation? You’re an old fool, Jack Erwin, I told myself. You should stick to your bourbon and blues.
Then I heard a door open behind me. Thinking it was Karen coming back, I turned around.
Ed Brennan stood there, a baseball bat in his hands.
Before I had time to react, the front door opened and Ginny Fraser walked in carrying a long kitchen knife.
Karen came out of the bathroom. She wasn’t carrying any weapon and she looked as if she had been crying. ‘Oh, Jack,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘I’m so sorry.’
‘What are you going to do?’ I asked, trying to sound more confident than I felt. ‘Hit me on the head with the baseball bat then stab me and pretend it was an accident? Just to protect Ed here? Come on, Karen, he’s not worth it.’
‘You don’t understand,’ Karen said. ‘You think you know everything but you don’t. You don’t know anything.’
My breath caught in my throat. ‘What the hell are you talking about?’
Then a strange thing happened. I saw Karen flash a quick, sad glance at Ed, and he just seemed to deflate right before my eyes. His baseball bat dropped to the floor. ‘He’s right, Karen,’ he said. ‘We can’t do this. We’re not killers.’
I looked at Ginny Fraser. She dropped the kitchen knife and flopped onto the sofa.
After I got my breath back, I turned to Karen and said, ‘Right, now we’ve got that charade out of the way, will someone tell me what’s going on here?’
‘I’m sorry,’ Ed said for the third time. ‘I don’t know what came over us. We were desperate. I still can’t imagine what made us think we could kill an innocent man. When Karen phoned from the restaurant and told us you knew… we just panicked.’
‘I’m sorry I deceived you,’ Karen said. ‘I admit I was trying to find out if you knew anything. After I saw you and the woman from the office looking at the pool yesterday, I thought you might be trouble. So I arranged the puncture.’
Well that makes two of us acting from impure motives, I thought. ‘So you’re all sorry,’ I said. ‘Whoop-a-de-doo-dah. Now would someone tell me why I shouldn’t call the police right now?’
‘We can’t stop you,’ Ed said. ‘We won’t stop you. In a way, it would be a relief.’
I poured three fingers of Karen’s bourbon into my glass and settled down on the sofa beside Ginny. Karen and Ed sat opposite in matching easy chairs. ‘Just tell me what it’s all about,’ I said. ‘Who really did kill Schiller?’
‘We all did,’ Ed answered.
I looked at Karen and Ginny, who both nodded.
Jesus Christ, I thought, it’s Murder on the Orient Express all over again.
‘Ginny and I pushed him into the pool,’ Ed went on. ‘He thought we were playing games. Karen plugged in the piano, and we all lowered it in after him. After that all we had to do was lie to the police and tell them he was still alive when we left him.’
‘What I really don’t understand,’ I went on, ‘is why. I know Smith cheated Ed out of his life’s savings, but what did he ever do to you, Karen?’
‘My father,’ she said flatly. ‘Vernon Connant. You’ll find his name on your list. Lee’s my married name. Smith swindled him out of every penny we had. When the news broke he killed my mother, then himself. With a shotgun. I was five at the time. Just before he put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger, he looked at me. He was going to kill me, too, but at the last moment, he couldn’t do it. I’ll never forget that look. I’ve spent my whole life trying, one shrink to another, pills, the lot. You can’t tell me that Sherman Smith didn’t deserve to die.’
I took a long sip of bourbon and let the fire fill my mouth before swallowing. ‘What about you, Ginny? You weren’t on the list, either.’
‘My husband. Harvey Pellier. I went back to my maiden name.’
Ginny gave a harsh laugh. ‘Nothing quite so dramatic as Karen’s story. Harvey lost everything, and it broke his spirit. He left us. Just walked out and never came back. We hadn’t been really well off, but we’d been happy. When Harvey left, the family just fell apart. I couldn’t hold it together. The kids did badly at school, started hanging with a bad crowd. You know the sort of thing. They drifted into drugs, street life. Will died of an overdose. Jane’s still somewhere out on the streets. I haven’t heard from her in years.’
After a few moments of silence, Ed ran his hands through his hair and said he wouldn’t mind a drink. Karen got him a Scotch on the rocks. Then he began. ‘I bumped into Smith about four years ago. Pure chance. Coincidence. I just couldn’t believe it. I suppose, when you think about it, you never know who’s going to be renting from who. Anyway, I saw him, after over fifteen years, and do you know what?’
I shook my head.
‘He didn’t recognize me. I mean, you ought to recognize people whose lives you ruined, don’t you think? Because of him I had a nervous breakdown, I got hooked on the booze, lost job after job. You name it.’ He thumped his chest with his fist. ‘Then, when I began to relive what he’d done to me, I realized the anger was still there. Only now I had the advantage. But I couldn’t kill him. Not alone.’ He glanced at Karen and Ginny. ‘When it first happened – I mean twenty years ago – lots of us had meetings with lawyers, and I became close to Karen’s father and Ginny’s husband. But Smith had never seen Karen or Ginny. So I got in touch with them, told them the situation and we planned what to do. We befriended him, one by one, pretended we didn’t know each other, then we killed him.’
Ed fell silent and the others looked at me. It was hard to imagine the havoc Sherman Smith had wreaked on these lives, hard not to sympathize with the three of them, but who was I to judge?
‘It’s up to you now, Jack,’ Karen said, seeming to sense my dilemma. ‘You know the whole story now. We’re guilty of premeditated murder.’ She glanced at Ed. ‘If you want my honest opinion, I don’t think it’s helped any of us. I don’t think it’s going to make our lives any easier to bear – probably the opposite – but it’s done and you’re the only one who knows about it. We can’t kill you, but we’re not going to give ourselves up willingly, either. It’s your decision.’
So whether I liked it or not, it was up to me. I finished my bourbon, then I nodded and went back to my condo.
Almost exactly one year to the day later, I found myself in Chloe’s for ‘Happy Hour’. There were one or two faces I recognized around the bar, but most of the people were strangers. I still didn’t know why I kept coming back year after year. Especially this year. Maybe Karen had been right and I was looking for catharsis.
Or for Karen.
I looked across the bar at where I had first really noticed her last year, running her finger around the rim of a glass. Now a chain-smoking brunette with a hard face sat there instead.
Al French slipped onto the empty stool beside me.
‘Beer?’ I offered.
‘My turn.’ Al ordered two beers. ‘Did you ever get to the bottom of that mysterious death?’ he asked.
‘Which one was that?’
‘You know. Last year. That asshole Bud Schiller.’
‘Oh, him.’ I shook my head. ‘I don’t think there was anything mysterious about it at all. I think he was drunk, he tripped and he fell into the pool.’
‘Yeah, and he pulled the piano in after him just for good measure. Come on, Jack.’
I shrugged. ‘You know, Al, sometimes the strangest of accidents do happen. Did I ever tell you about the guy they found dead on the subway tracks and couldn’t find his head?’
THE WRONG HANDS
‘Is everything in order?’ the old man asked, his scrawny fingers clutching the comforter like talons.
‘Seems to be,’ said Mitch.
Drawing up the will had been a simple enough task. Mr Garibaldi and his wife had the dubious distinction of outliving both their children, and there wasn’t much to leave.
‘Would you like to sign it now?’ he asked, holding out his Mont Blanc.
The old man clutched the pen the way a child holds a crayon and scribbled his illegible signature on the documents.
‘There… that’s done,’ said Mitch. He placed the papers in his briefcase.
Mr Garibaldi nodded. The movement brought on a spasm and such a coughing fit that Mitch thought the old man was going to die right there and then.
But he recovered. ‘Will you do me a favour?’ he croaked when he’d got his breath back.
Mitch frowned. ‘If I can.’
With one bent, shrivelled finger, Mr Garibaldi pointed to the floor under the window. ‘Pull the carpet back,’ he said.
Mitch stood up and looked.
‘Please,’ said Mr Garibaldi. ‘The carpet.’
Mitch walked over to the window and rolled back the carpet. Underneath was nothing but floorboards.
‘One of the boards is loose,’ said the old man. ‘The one directly in line with the wall socket. Lift it up.’
Mitch felt and, sure enough, part of the floorboard was loose. He lifted it easily with his fingernails. Underneath, wedged between the joists, lay a package wrapped in old newspaper.
‘That’s it,’ said the old man. ‘Take it out.’
Mitch did. It was heavier than he had expected.
‘Now put the board back and replace the carpet.’
After he had done as he was asked, Mitch carried the package over to the bed.
‘Open it,’ said Mr Garibaldi. ‘Go on, it won’t bite you.’
Slowly, Mitch unwrapped the newspaper. It was from 18 December 1947, he noticed, and the headline reported a blizzard dumping twenty-eight inches of snow on New York City the day before. Inside, he found a layer of oilcloth. When he had folded back that too, a gun gleamed up at him. It was old, he could tell that, but it looked in superb condition. He hefted it into his hand, felt its weight and balance, pointed it towards the wall as if to shoot.
‘Be careful,’ said the old man. ‘It’s loaded.’
Mitch looked at the gun again, then put it back on the oilcloth. His fingers were smudged with oil or grease, so he took a tissue from the bedside table and wiped them off as best he could.
‘What the hell are you doing with a loaded gun?’ he asked.
Mr Garibaldi sighed. ‘It’s a Luger,’ he said. ‘First World War, probably. Old, anyway. A friend gave it to me many years ago. A German friend. I’ve kept it ever since. Partly as a memento of him and partly for protection. You know what this city’s been getting like these past few years. I’ve maintained it, cleaned it, kept it loaded. Now I’m gonna die I want to hand it in. I don’t want it to fall into the wrong hands.’
Mitch set the Luger down on the bed. ‘Why tell me?’ he asked.
‘Because it’s unregistered and I’d like you to hand it over for me.’ He shook his head and coughed again. ‘I haven’t got long left. I don’t want no cops coming round here and giving me a hard time.’
‘They won’t give you a hard time.’ More like give you a medal for handing over an unregistered firearm, Mitch thought.
‘Maybe not. But…’ Mr Garibaldi grabbed Mitch’s wrist with his talon. The fingers felt cold and dry, like a reptile’s skin. Mitch tried to pull back a little, but the old man held on, pulled him closer and croaked, ‘Sophie doesn’t know. It would make her real angry to know we had a gun in the house the last fifty years and I kept it from her. I don’t want to end my days with my wife mad at me. Please, Mr Mitchell. It’s a small favour I ask.’
Mitch scratched the side of his eye. True enough, he thought, it was a small favour. And it might prove a profitable one, too. Old firearms were worth something to collectors, and Mitch knew a cop who had connections. All he had to say was that he had been entrusted this gun by a client, who had brought it to his office, that he had put it in the safe and called the police immediately. What could be wrong with that?
‘OK,’ he said, rewrapping the gun and slipping it in his briefcase along with the will. ‘I’ll do as you ask. Don’t worry. You rest now. Everything will be OK.’
Mr Garibaldi smiled and seemed to sink into a deep sleep.
Mitch stood on the porch of the Garibaldi house and pulled on his sheepskin-lined gloves, glad to be out of the cloying atmosphere of the sickroom, even if it was minus ninety or something outside.
He was already wearing his heaviest overcoat over a suit and a wool scarf, but still he was freezing. It was one of those clear winter nights when the ice cracks underfoot and the breeze off the lake seems to numb you right to the bone. Reflected street lamps splintered in the broken mirror of the sidewalk, the colour of Mr Garibaldi’s jaundiced eyes.
Mitch pulled his coat tighter around his scarf and set off, cracking the iced-over puddles as he went. Here and there, the remains of last week’s snow had frozen into ruts, and he almost slipped and fell a couple of times on the uneven surface.
As he walked, he thought of old Garibaldi, with no more than a few weeks or days left to live. The old man must have been in pain sometimes, but he never complained. And he surely must be afraid of death? Maybe dying put things in perspective, Mitch thought. Maybe the mind, facing the eternal, icy darkness of death, had ways of dealing with its impending extinction, of discarding the dross, the petty and the useless.
Or perhaps not. Maybe the old man just lay there day after day running baseball statistics through his mind; or wishing he’d slept with his neighbour’s wife when he had the chance.
As Mitch walked up the short hill, he cursed the fact that you could never get a decent parking spot in these residential streets. He’d had to park in the lot behind the drug store, the next street over, and the quickest way there was through a dirt alley just about wide enough for a garbage truck to pass through.
It happened as he cut through the alley. And it happened so fast that, afterwards, he couldn’t be quite sure whether he felt the sharp blow to the back of his head before his feet slipped out from under him, or after.
When Mitch opened his eyes again, the first thing he saw was the night sky. It looked like a black satin bed-sheet with some rich woman’s diamonds spilled all over it. There was no moon.
He felt frozen to the marrow. He didn’t know how long he had been lying there in the alley – long enough to die of exposure it felt like – but when he checked his watch, he saw he had only been out a little over five minutes. Not surprising no one had found him yet. Not here, on a night like this.
He lay on the frozen mud and took stock. Despite the cold, everything hurt – his elbow, which he had cracked trying to break his fall; his tailbone; his right shoulder; and, most of all, his head – and the pain was sharp and spiky, not at all numb like the rest of him. He reached around and touched the sore spot on the back of his head. His fingers came away sticky with blood.
He took a deep breath and tried to get to his feet, but he could only manage to slip and skitter around like a newborn deer, making himself even more dizzy. There was no purchase, nothing to grip. Snail-like, he slid himself along the ice towards the rickety fence. There, by reaching out and grabbing the wooden rails carefully, he was able to drag himself to his feet, picking up only a few splinters for his troubles.
At first, he wished he had stayed where he was. His head started to spin and he thought it was going to split open with pain. For a moment, he was sure he was going to fall again. He held on to the fence for dear life and vomited, the world swimming around his head. After that, he felt a little better. Maybe he wasn’t going to die.
The only light shone from a street lamp at the end of the alley, not really enough to search by, so Mitch used the plastic penlight attached to his key-ring to look for his briefcase. But it wasn’t there. Stepping carefully on the ribbed ice, still in pain and unsure of his balance, Mitch extended the area of his search in case the briefcase had skidded off somewhere on the ice when he fell. It was nowhere to be found.
Almost as an afterthought, as the horrible truth was beginning to dawn on him, he felt for his wallet. Gone. So he’d been mugged. The blow had come before the fall. And they’d taken his briefcase.
Then Mitch remembered the gun.
The next morning was a nightmare. Mitch had managed to get himself home from the alley without crashing the car, and after a long, hot bath, a tumbler of Scotch and four extra-strength Tylenol, he began to feel a little better. He seemed to remember his mother once saying you shouldn’t go to sleep after a bump on the head – he didn’t know why – but it didn’t stop him that night.
In the morning, he awoke aching all over.
When he had showered, taken more Tylenol and forced himself to eat some bran flakes, he poured a second cup of strong black coffee and sat down to think things out. None of his thoughts brought any comfort.
He hadn’t gone to the cops. How could he, given what he had been carrying? Whichever way you looked at it, he had been in possession of an illegal, unregistered firearm when he was mugged. Even if the cops had been lenient, there was the Law Society to reckon with, and like most lawyers, Mitch feared the Law Society far more than he feared the police.
Maybe he could have sort of skipped over the gun in his account of the mugging. After all, he was pretty sure that it couldn’t be traced either to him or to Garibaldi. But what if the cops found the briefcase and the gun was still inside it? How could he explain that?
Would that be worse than if the briefcase turned up and the gun was gone? If the muggers took it, the chances were someone might get shot with it. Either way, it was a bad scenario for Mitch, and it was all his fault. Well, maybe fault was too strong a word – he couldn’t help getting mugged – but he still felt somehow responsible.
All he could do was hope that whoever took the gun would get rid of it, throw it in the lake, before anyone came to any harm.
Later that morning, Mitch remembered Garibaldi’s will. That had gone, too, along with the briefcase and the gun. And it would have to be replaced.
There’s only one true will – copies have no legal standing – and if you lose it you could have a hell of a mess on your hands. Luckily, he had Garibaldi’s will on his computer. All he had to do was print it out again and hope to hell the old guy hadn’t died during the night.
He hadn’t. Puzzled, but accepting Mitch’s excuse of a minor error he’d come across when proof-reading the document, Garibaldi signed again with a shaking hand.
‘Is the gun safe?’ he asked afterwards. ‘You’ve got it locked away in your safe?’
‘Yes,’ Mitch lied. ‘Yes, don’t worry, the gun’s perfectly safe.’
Every day Mitch scanned the paper from cover to cover for news of a shooting or a gun found abandoned somewhere. He even took to buying the Sun – which he normally wouldn’t even use as toilet paper up at the cottage – because it covered more lurid local crime than the Globe or the Star. Anything to do with firearms was certain to make it into the Sun.
But it wasn’t until three weeks and three days after the mugging – and two weeks after Mr Garibaldi’s death ‘peacefully, at home’ – that the item appeared. And it was big enough news to make the Globe and Mail.
Mr Charles McVie was shot dead in his home last night during the course of an apparent burglary. A police spokesperson says Mr McVie was shot twice, once in the chest and once in the groin, while interrupting a burglar at his Beaches mansion shortly after midnight last night. He died of his wounds three hours later at East General Hospital. Detective Greg Hollins, who has been assigned the case, declined to comment on whether the police are following any significant leads at the moment, but he did inform our reporter that preliminary tests indicate the bullet was most likely fired from an old 9mm semi-automatic weapon, such as a Luger, unusual and fairly rare these days. As yet, police have not been able to locate the gun. Mr McVie, 62, made his fortune in the construction business. His wife, Laura, who was staying overnight with friends in Windsor when the shooting occurred, had no comment when she was reached early this morning.
The newspaper shook in Mitch’s hands. It had happened. Somebody had died because of him. But while he felt guilt, he also felt fear. Was there really no way the police could tie the gun to him or Mr Garibaldi? Thank God the old man was dead, or he might hear about the shooting and his conscience might oblige him to come forward. Luckily, his widow, Sophie, knew nothing.
With luck, the Luger was in the deepest part of the lake for sure by now. Whether anyone else had touched it or not, Mitch knew damn well that he had, and that his greasy fingerprints weren’t only all over the grip and the barrel, but on the wrapping paper, too. The muggers had probably been wearing gloves when they robbed him – it was a cold night – and maybe they’d had the sense to keep them on when they saw what was in the briefcase.
Calm down, he told himself. Even if the cops did find his fingerprints on the gun, they had no way of knowing whose prints they were. Mitch had never been fingerprinted in his life, and the cops would have no reason to subject him to it now.
And they couldn’t connect Charles McVie to either Mr Garibaldi or to Mitch.
Except for one thing.
Mitch had drawn up McVie’s will two years ago, after his marriage to Laura, his second wife.
Mitch had known that Laura McVie was younger than her husband, but even that knowledge hadn’t prepared him for the woman who opened the door to him three days after Charles McVie’s funeral.
Black became her. Really became her, the way it set off her creamy complexion, long blonde hair, Kim Basinger lips and eyes the colour of a bluejay’s wing.
‘Yes?’ she said, frowning slightly.
Mitch had put on his very best, most expensive suit, and he knew he looked sharp. He didn’t want her to think he was some ambulance-chaser come after her husband’s money.
As executor, Laura McVie was under no obligation to use the same lawyer who had prepared her husband’s will to handle his estate. Laura might have a lawyer of her own in mind. But Mitch did have the will, so there was every chance that if he presented himself well she would choose him to handle the estate too.
And there was much more money in estates – especially those as big as McVie’s – than there was in wills.
At least, Mitch thought, he wasn’t so hypocritical as to deny that he had mixed motives for visiting the widow. Didn’t everyone have mixed motives? He felt partly responsible for McVie’s death, of course, and a part of him genuinely wanted to offer the widow help.
After Mitch had introduced himself, Laura looked him over, plump lower lip fetchingly nipped between two sharp, white teeth, then she flashed him a smile and said, ‘Please come in, Mr Mitchell. I was wondering what to do about all that stuff. I really could use some help.’ Her voice was husky and low-pitched, with just a subtle hint of that submissive tone that can drive certain men wild.
Mitch followed her into the high-ceilinged hallway, watching the way her hips swayed under the mourning dress.
He was in. All right! He almost executed a little jig on the parquet floor.
The house was an enormous heap of stone overlooking the ravine. It had always reminded Mitch of an English vicarage, or what he assumed an English vicarage looked like from watching PBS. Inside, though, it was bright and spacious and filled with modern furniture – not an anti-macassar in sight. The paintings that hung on the white walls were all contemporary abstracts and geometric designs, no doubt originals and worth a small fortune in themselves. The stereo equipment was state-of-the-art, as were the large screen TV, VCR and DVD player.
Laura McVie sat on a white sofa and crossed her legs. The dress she wore was rather short for mourning, Mitch thought, though he wasn’t likely to complain about the four or five inches of smooth thigh it revealed. Especially as the lower part was sheathed in black silk stockings and the upper was bare and white.
She took a cigarette from a carved wooden box on the coffee table and lit it with a lighter that looked like a baseball. Mitch declined the offer to join her.
‘I hope you don’t mind,’ she said, lowering her eyes. ‘It’s my only vice.’
‘Of course not.’ Mitch cleared his throat. ‘I just wanted to come and tell you how sorry I was to hear about the… the tragic accident. Your husband was-’
‘It wasn’t an accident, Mr Mitchell,’ she said calmly. ‘My husband was murdered. I believe we should face the truth clearly and not hide behind euphemisms, don’t you?’
‘Well, if you put it like that…’
She nodded. ‘You were saying about my husband?’
‘Well, I didn’t know him well, but I have done some legal work for him – specifically his will – and I am aware of his circumstances.’
‘My husband was very rich, Mr Mitchell.’
‘Exactly. I thought… well… there are some unscrupulous people out there, Mrs McVie.’
‘Please, call me Laura.’
‘Laura. There are some unscrupulous people out there, and I thought if there was anything I could do to help, perhaps give advice, take the burden off your hands…?’
‘What burden would that be, Mr Mitchell?’
Mitch sat forward and clasped his hands on his knees. ‘When someone dies, Mrs – Laura – there are always problems, legal wrangling and the like. Your husband’s affairs seem to be in good order, judging from his will, but that was made two years ago. I’d hate to see someone come and take advantage of you.’
‘Thank you,’ Laura said. ‘You’re so sweet. And why shouldn’t you handle the estate? Someone has to do it. I can’t.’
Mitch had the strangest feeling that something was going awry here. Laura McVie didn’t seem at all the person to be taken advantage of, yet she seemed to be swallowing his line of patter. That could only be, he decided, because it suited her, too. And why not? It would take a load off her mind.
‘That wasn’t the main reason I came, though,’ Mitch pressed on, feeling an irrational desire to explain himself. ‘I genuinely wanted to see if I could help in any way.’
‘Why?’ she asked, blue eyes open wide. ‘Why should you? Mr Mitchell, I’ve come to learn that people do things for selfish motives. Self-interest rules. Always. I don’t believe in altruism. Nor did my husband. At least we were agreed on that.’ She turned aside, flicked some ash at the ashtray and missed. In contrast to everything else in the place, the tin ashtray looked as if it had been stolen from a lowlife bar. ‘So you want to help me?’ she said. ‘For a fee, of course.’
Mitch felt embarrassed and uncomfortable. The part of him that had desperately wanted to make amends for his part in Charles McVie’s death was being thwarted by the frankness and openness of the widow. Yes, he could use the money – of course he could – but that really wasn’t his only reason for being there, and he wanted her to know that. How could he explain that he really wasn’t such a bad guy?
‘There are expenses involved in settling an estate,’ Mitch went on. ‘Disbursements. Of course, there are. But I’m not here to cheat you.’
She smiled at him indulgently. ‘Of course not.’
Which definitely came across as, ‘As if you could.’
‘But if you’ll allow me to-’
She shifted her legs, showing more thigh. ‘Mr Mitchell,’ she said, ‘I’m getting the feeling that you really do have another reason for coming to see me. If it’s not that you’re after my husband’s money, then what are you after?’
Mitch swallowed. ‘I… I feel. You see, I-’
‘Come on, Mr Mitchell. You can tell me. You’ll feel better.’
The voice that had seemed so submissive when Mitch first heard it now became hypnotic, so warm, so trustworthy, so easy to answer. And he had to tell someone.
‘I feel partly responsible for your husband’s death,’ he said, looking into her eyes. ‘Oh, I’m not the burglar, I’m not the killer. But I think I inadvertently supplied the gun.’
Laura McVie looked puzzled. Now he had begun, Mitch saw no point in stopping. If he could only tell this woman the full story, he thought, then she would understand. Perhaps she would even be sympathetic towards him. Forgive him. So he told her.
When he had finished, Laura stood up abruptly and walked over to the picture-window with its view of a back garden as big as Central Park. Mitch sat where he was and looked at her from behind. Her legs were close together and her arms were crossed. She seemed to be turned in on herself. He couldn’t tell whether she was crying or not, but her shoulders seemed to be moving.
‘Well?’ he asked, after a while. ‘What do you think?’
She let the silence stretch a moment, then dropped her arms and turned around slowly. Her eyes did look moist with tears. ‘What do I think?’ she said. ‘I don’t know. I don’t know what to think. I think that maybe if you’d reported the gun stolen the police would have searched for it and my husband wouldn’t have been murdered.’
‘But I would have been charged, disbarred.’
‘Mr Mitchell, surely that’s a small price to pay for someone’s life? I’m sorry. I think you’d better go. I can’t think straight right now.’
‘Please, Mr Mitchell. Leave.’ She turned back to the window again and folded her arms, shaking.
Mitch got up off the sofa and headed for the door. He felt defeated, as if he had left something important unfinished, but there was nothing he could do about it. Only slink off with his tail between his legs feeling worse than when he had come. Why hadn’t he just told her he was after handling McVie’s estate. Money, pure and simple. Self-interest like that she would have understood.
Two days later, and still no developments reported in the McVie investigation, Laura phoned.
‘I’m sorry about my behaviour the other day. I was upset, as you can imagine.’
‘I can understand that,’ Mitch said. ‘I don’t blame you. I don’t even know why I told you.’
‘I’m glad you did. I’ve had time to think about it since then, and I’m beginning to realize how terrible you must feel. I want you to understand that I don’t blame you. It’s not the gun that commits the crime, after all, is it? It’s the person who pulls the trigger. I’m sure if the burglar hadn’t got that one, he’d have got one somewhere else. Look, this is very awkward over the telephone, do you think you could come to the house?’
‘How about this evening. For dinner?’
‘Fine,’ said Mitch. ‘I’m really glad you can find it in your heart to forgive me.’
‘Eight it is.’
When he put down the phone, Mitch jumped to his feet, punched the air, shouted, ‘Yes!’
‘Dinner’ was catered by a local Italian restaurant, Laura McVie not being, in her own words, ‘much of a cook’. Two waiters delivered the food, served it discreetly, and took away the dirty dishes.
Mostly, Mitch and Laura made small talk in the candlelight over the pasta and wine, and it wasn’t until the waiters had left and they were alone, relaxing on the sofa, each cradling a snifter of Courvoisier XO cognac, with mellow jazz playing in the background, that the conversation became more intimate.
Laura was still funereally clad, but tonight her dress, made of semi-transparent layers of black chiffon – more than enough for decency – fell well below knee height. There was still no disguising the curves, and the rustling sounds as she crossed her legs made Mitch more than a little hot under the collar.
Laura puckered her lips to light a cigarette. When she had blown the smoke out, she asked, ‘Are you married?’
Mitch shook his head.
‘Just didn’t meet the right girl, is that it?’
‘Something like that.’
‘You’re not gay are you?’
He laughed. ‘What on earth made you think that?’
She rested her free hand on his and smiled. ‘Don’t worry. Nothing made me think it. Nothing in particular. Just checking, that’s all.’
‘No,’ Mitch said. ‘I’m not gay.’
‘Sure.’ Mitch was already feeling a little tipsy, but he didn’t want to spoil the mood.
She fetched the bottle and poured them each a generous measure. ‘I didn’t really love Charles, you know,’ she said when she had settled down and smoothed her dress again. ‘I mean, I respected him, I even liked him, I just didn’t love him.’
‘Why did you marry him?’
Laura shrugged. ‘I don’t know really. He asked me. He was rich and seemed to live an exciting life. Travel. Parties. I got to meet all kinds of celebrities. We’d only been married two years, you know. And we’d only known one another a few weeks before we got married. We hadn’t even… you know. Anyway, I’m sorry he’s dead… in a way.’
‘What do you mean?’
Laura leaned forward and stubbed out her cigarette. Then she brushed back a long blonde tress and took another sip of cognac before answering. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘now that he’s dead, it’s all mine, isn’t it? I’d be a hypocrite and a fool if I said that didn’t appeal to me. All this wealth and no strings attached. No responsibilities.’
‘What responsibilities were there before?’
The left corner of her lips twitched in a smile. ‘Oh, you know. The usual wifely kind. Charles was never, well… let’s say he wasn’t a very passionate lover. He wanted me more as a showpiece than anything else. A trophy. Something to hang on his arm that looked good. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t mind. It was a small price to pay. And then we were forever having to entertain the most boring people. Business acquaintances. You know the sort of thing. Well, now that Charles is gone, I won’t have to do that any more, will I? I’ll be able to do what I want. Exactly what I want.’
Almost without Mitch knowing it, Laura had edged nearer towards him as she was speaking, and now she was so close he could smell the warm, acrid smoke and the cognac on her breath. He found it curiously intoxicating. Soon she was close enough to kiss.
She took hold of his hand and rested it on her breast. ‘It’s been a week since the funeral,’ she said. ‘Don’t you think it’s time I took off my widow’s weeds?’
When Mitch left Laura McVie’s house the following morning, he was beginning to think he might be on to a good thing. Why stop at being estate executor? he asked himself. He already knew that, under the terms of the will, Laura got everything – McVie had no children or other living relatives – and everything was somewhere in the region of five million dollars.
Even if he didn’t love her – and how could you tell if you loved someone after just one night? – he certainly felt passionately drawn to her. They got on well together, thought alike, and she was a wonderful lover. Mitch was no slouch, either. He could certainly make up for her late husband in that department.
He mustn’t rush it, though. Take things easy, see what develops… Maybe they could go away together for a while. Somewhere warm. And then… well… five million dollars.
Such were his thoughts as he turned the corner, just before the heavy hand settled on his shoulder and a deep voice whispered in his ear, ‘Detective Greg Hollins, Mr Mitchell. Homicide. I think it’s about time you and I had a long talk.’
Relieved to be let off with little more than a warning in exchange for cooperating with the police, Mitch turned up at Laura’s the next evening as arranged. This time they skipped the dinner and drinks preliminaries and headed straight for her bedroom.
Afterwards she lay with her head resting on his shoulder, smoking a cigarette.
‘My God,’ she said. ‘I missed this when I was married to Charles.’
‘Didn’t you have any lovers?’ Mitch asked.
‘Of course I didn’t.’
‘Oh, come on. I won’t be jealous. I promise. Tell me.’
She jerked away, stubbed out the cigarette on the bedside ashtray, and said, ‘You’re just like the police. Do you know that? You’ve got a filthy mind.’
‘Hey,’ said Mitch. ‘It’s me. Mitch. OK?’
‘Still… They think I did it, you know.’
‘I thought you had an alibi.’
‘I do, idiot. They think the burglary was just a cover. They think I hired someone to kill him.’
‘See what I mean? Just like the cops, with your filthy, suspicious mind.’
‘What makes you think they suspect you?’
‘The way they talked, the way they questioned me. I think they’re watching me.’
‘You’re just being paranoid, Laura. You’re upset. They always suspect someone in the family at first. It’s routine. Most killings are family affairs. You’ll see, pretty soon they’ll drop it.’
‘Do you really think so?’
‘Sure I do. Just you wait and see.’
And moments later they were making love again.
Laura seemed a little distracted when she let him in the next night. At first he thought she had something on the stove, but then he remembered she didn’t cook.
She was on the telephone, as it turned out. And she hung up the receiver just as he walked into the living room.
‘Who was that?’ he asked. ‘Not reporters, I hope?’
‘No,’ she said, arms crossed, facing him, an unreadable expression on her face.
Laura just stood there. ‘They’ve found the gun,’ she said finally.
‘They’ve what? Where?’
‘In your garage, under an old tarpaulin.’
‘I don’t understand. What are you talking about? When?’
She looked at her watch. ‘About now.’
Laura shrugged. ‘Anonymous tip. You’d better sit down, Mitch.’
Mitch collapsed on the sofa.
‘A large one.’
Laura brought him a large tumbler of Scotch and sat in the armchair opposite him.
‘What’s all this about?’ he asked, after the whisky had warmed his insides. ‘I don’t understand what you’re saying. How could they find the gun in my garage? I told you what happened to it.’
‘I know you did,’ said Laura. ‘And I’m telling you where it ended up. You’re really not very bright, are you, Mitch? How do you think it got there?’
‘Someone must have put it there.’
‘One of the muggers? But…?’
‘What does it matter? What matters is that it will probably have your fingerprints on it. Or the wrapping will. All those greasy smudges. And even if it doesn’t, how are you going to explain its presence in your garage?’
‘But why would the cops think I killed Charles?’
‘We had a relationship. We were lovers. Like I told you, I’m certain they’ve been watching me, and they can’t fail to have noticed that you’ve stayed overnight on more than one occasion.’
‘But that’s absurd. I hadn’t even met you before your husband’s death.’
‘Hadn’t you?’ She raised her eyebrows. ‘Don’t you remember, honey, all those times we met in secret, made love cramped in the back of your car because we didn’t even dare be seen signing in under false names in the Have-a-Nap Motel or wherever? We had to keep our relationship very, very secret. Don’t you remember?’
‘You’d tell them that?’
‘The way they’ll see it is that the relationship was more important to you than to me. You became obsessed by jealousy because I was married to someone else. You couldn’t stand it any more. And you thought by killing my husband you could get both me and my money. After all, you did prepare his will, didn’t you? You knew all about his finances.’
Mitch shook his head.
‘I would like to thank you, though,’ Laura went on. ‘Without you, we had a good plan – a very good one – but with you we’ve got a perfect one.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean you were right when you suggested I had a lover. I do. Oh, not you, not the one I’m handing over to the police, the one who became so obsessed with me that it unhinged him and he murdered my husband. No. I’ve been very careful with Jake. I met him on the Yucatan peninsula when Charles and I were on holiday there six months ago and Charles went down with Montezuma’s revenge. I know it sounds like a romantic cliché, but it was love at first sight. We hatched the plan very quickly and we knew we had to keep our relationship a total secret. Nobody must suspect a thing. So we never met after that vacation. There were no letters or postcards. The only contact we had was through public telephones.’
‘And what happens now?’
‘After a decent interval – after you’ve been tried and convicted of my husband’s murder – Jake and I will meet and eventually get married. We’ll sell up here, of course, and live abroad. Live in luxury. Oh, please don’t look so crestfallen, Mitch. Believe me, I am sorry. I didn’t know you were going to walk into my life with that irresistible little confession, now, did I? I figured I’d just ride it out, the cops’ suspicions and all. I mean they might suspect me, but they couldn’t prove anything. I was in Windsor staying with friends. They’ve checked. And now they’ve got you into the bargain…’ She shrugged. ‘Why would they bother with little old me? I just couldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. You’ll make a wonderful fall guy. But because I like you, Mitch, I’m at least giving you a little advance warning, aren’t I? The police will be looking for you, but you’ve still got time to make a break, leave town.’
‘What if I go to them, tell them everything you’ve told me?’
‘They’ll think you’re crazy. Which you are. Obsession does that to people. Makes them crazy.’
Mitch licked his lips. ‘Look, I’d have to leave everything behind. I don’t even have any cash on me. Laura, you don’t think you could-’
She shook her head. ‘Sorry, honey. No can do. Nothing personal.’
Mitch slumped back in the chair. ‘At least tell me one more thing. The gun. I still don’t understand how it came to be the one that killed your husband.’
She laughed, showing the sharp, white teeth. ‘Pure coincidence. It was beautiful. Jake happens to be…
… a burglar by profession, and a very good one. He has worked all over the States and Canada, and he’s never been caught. We thought that if I told him about the security system at the house, he could get around it cleverly and… Of course, he couldn’t bring his own gun here from Mexico, not by air, so he had to get one. He said that’s not too difficult when you move in the circles he does. The kind of bars where you can buy guns and other stolen goods are much the same anywhere, in much the same sort of neighbourhoods. And he’s done jobs up here before.
‘As luck would have it, he bought an old Luger off two inexperienced muggers. For a hundred bucks. I just couldn’t believe it when you came around with your story. There couldn’t be two old Lugers kicking around the neighbourhood at the same time, could there? I had to turn away from you and hold my sides, I was laughing so much. It made my eyes water. What unbelievable luck!’
‘I’m so glad you think so,’ said Mitch.
‘Anyway, when I told Jake, he agreed it was too good an opportunity to miss, so he came back up here, dug the gun up from where he had buried it, safe in its wrapping, and planted it in your garage. He hadn’t handled it without gloves on, and he thought the two young punks he bought it from had been too scared to touch it, so the odds were, after you told me your story, that your fingerprints would still be on it. As I said, even if they aren’t… It’s still perfect.’
Only tape hiss followed, and Detective Greg Hollins switched off the machine. ‘That it?’ he asked.
Mitch nodded. ‘I left. I thought I’d got enough.’
‘You did a good job. Jesus, you got more than enough. I was hoping she’d let something slip, but I didn’t expect a full confession and her accomplice’s name in the bargain.’
‘Thanks. I didn’t have a lot of choice, did I?’
The last two times Mitch had been to see Laura, he had been wearing a tiny but powerful voice-activated tape recorder sewn into the lining of his suit jacket. It had lain on the chair beside the bed when they made love, and he had tried to get her to admit she had a boyfriend, as Hollins had suspected. He had also been wearing it the night she told him the police were about to find the Luger in his garage.
The recorder was part of the deal. Why he got off with only a warning for not reporting the theft of an unregistered firearm.
‘What’ll happen to her now?’ he asked Hollins.
‘With any luck, both she and her boyfriend will do life,’ said Hollins. ‘But what do you care? After the way she treated you. She’s a user. She chewed you up and spat you out.’
Mitch sighed. ‘Yeah, I know…’ he said. ‘But it could have been worse, couldn’t it?’
‘I could’ve ended up married to her.’
Hollins stared at him for a moment, then he burst out laughing. ‘I’m glad you’ve got a sense of humour, Mitchell. You’ll need it, what’s coming your way next.’
Mitch shifted uneasily in his chair. ‘Hey, just a minute! We made a deal. You assured me there’d be no charges over the gun.’
Hollins nodded. ‘That’s right. We did make a deal. And I never go back on my word.’
Mitch shook his head. ‘Then I don’t understand. What are you talking about?’
‘Well, there’s this lady from the Law Society waiting outside, Mitchell. And she’d really like to talk to you.’
THE TWO LADIES OF ROSE COTTAGE
In our village, they were always known as the ‘Two Ladies of Rose Cottage’: Miss Eunice with the white hair, and Miss Teresa with the grey. Nobody really knew where they came from, or exactly how old they were, but the consensus held that they had met in India, America or South Africa and decided to return to the homeland to live out their days together. And in 1939 they were generally believed to be in or approaching their nineties.
Imagine our surprise, then, one fine day in September, when the police car pulled up outside Rose Cottage, and when, in a matter of hours, rumours began to spread throughout the village: rumours of human bones dug up in a distant garden; rumours of mutilation and dismemberment; rumours of murder.
Lyndgarth is the name of our village. It is situated in one of the most remote Yorkshire Dales, about twenty miles from Eastvale, the nearest large town. The village is no more than a group of limestone houses with slate roofs clustered around a bumpy, slanted green that always reminded me of a handkerchief flapping in the breeze. We have the usual amenities – grocer’s shop, butcher’s, newsagent’s, post office, school, a church, a chapel, three public houses – and proximity to some of the most beautiful countryside in the world.
I was fifteen in 1939, and Miss Eunice and Miss Teresa had been living in the village for twenty years, yet still they remained strangers to us. It is often said that you have to ‘winter out’ at least two years before being accepted into village life, and in the case of a remote place like Lyndgarth, in those days, it was more like ten.
As far as the locals were concerned, then, the two ladies had served their apprenticeship and were more than fit to be accepted as fully paid up members of the community, yet there was about them a certain detached quality that kept them ever at arm’s length.
They did all their shopping in the village and were always polite to people they met in the street; they regularly attended church services at St Oswald’s and helped with charity events; and they never set foot in any of the public houses. But still there was that sense of distance, of not quite being – or not wanting to be – a part of things.
The summer of 1939 had been unusually beautiful despite the political tensions. Or am I indulging in nostalgia for childhood? Our dale can be one of the most grim and desolate landscapes on the face of the earth, even in August, but I remember the summers of my youth as days of dazzling sunshine and blue skies. In 1939 every day was a new symphony of colour – golden buttercups, pink clover, mauve cranesbill – ever changing and recombining in fresh palettes. While the tense negotiations went on in Europe, while Ribbentrop and Molotov signed the Nazi-Soviet pact, and while there was talk of conscription and rationing at home, very little changed in Lyndgarth.
Summer in the dale was always a season for odd jobs – peat-cutting, wall-mending, sheep-clipping – and for entertainments, such as the dialect plays, the circus, fairs and brass bands. Even after war was declared on 3 September, we still found ourselves rather guiltily having fun, scratching our heads, shifting from foot to foot, and wondering when something really warlike was going to happen.
Of course, we had our gas masks in their cardboard boxes, which we had to carry everywhere; street lighting was banned, and motor cars were not allowed to use their headlights. This latter rule was the cause of numerous accidents in the dale, usually involving wandering sheep on the unfenced roads.
Some evacuees also arrived from the cities. Uncouth urchins for the most part, often verminous and ill-equipped for country life, they seemed like an alien race to us. Most of them didn’t seem to have any warm clothing or Wellington boots, as if they had never seen mud in the city. Looking back, I realize they were far from home, separated from their parents, and they must have been scared to death. I am ashamed to admit, though, that at the time I didn’t go out of my way to give them a warm welcome.
This is partly because I was always lost in my own world. I was a bookish child and had recently discovered the stories of Thomas Hardy, who seemed to understand and sympathize with a lonely village lad and his dreams of becoming a writer. I also remember how much he thrilled and scared me with some of the stories. After ‘The Withered Arm’ I wouldn’t let anyone touch me for a week, and I didn’t dare go to sleep after ‘Barbara of the House of Grebe’ for fear that there was a horribly disfigured statue in the wardrobe, that the door would slowly creak open and…
I think I was reading Far from the Madding Crowd that hot July day, and, as was my wont, I read as I walked across the village green, not looking where I was going. It was Miss Teresa I bumped into, and I remember thinking that she seemed remarkably resilient for such an old lady.
‘Do mind where you’re going, young man!’ she admonished me, though when she heard my effusive apologies, she softened her tone somewhat. She asked me what I was reading, and when I showed her the book, she closed her eyes for a moment and a strange expression crossed her wrinkled features.
‘Ah, Mr Hardy,’ she said, after a short silence. ‘I knew him once, you know, in his youth. I grew up in Dorset.’
I could hardly hold back my enthusiasm. Someone who actually knew Hardy! I told her that he was my favourite writer of all time, even better than Shakespeare, and that when I grew up I wanted to be a writer, just like him.
Miss Teresa smiled indulgently. ‘Do calm down,’ she said, then she paused. ‘I suppose,’ she continued, with a glance towards Miss Eunice, ‘that if you are really interested in Mr Hardy, perhaps you might like to come to tea some day?’
When I assured her I would be delighted, we made an arrangement that I was to call at Rose Cottage the following Tuesday at four o’clock, after securing my mother’s permission, of course.
That Tuesday visit was the first of many. Inside, Rose Cottage belied its name. It seemed dark and gloomy, unlike ours, which was always full of sunlight and bright flowers. The furnishings were antique, even a little shabby. I recollect no family photographs of the kind that embellished most mantelpieces, but there was a huge gilt-framed painting of a young girl working alone in a field hanging on one wall. If the place sometimes smelled a little musty and neglected, the aroma of Miss Teresa’s fresh-baked scones more often than not made up for it.
‘Mr Hardy was full of contradictions,’ Miss Teresa told me on one occasion. ‘He was a dreamer, of course, and never happier than when wandering the countryside alone with his thoughts. But he was also a fine musician. He played the fiddle on many social occasions, such as dances and weddings, and he was often far more gregarious and cheerful than many of his critics would have imagined. He was also a scholar, head forever buried in a book, always studying Latin or Greek. I was no dullard, either, you know, and I like to think I held my own in our conversations, though I had little Latin and less Greek.’ She chuckled, then turned serious again. ‘Anyway, one never felt one really knew him. One was always looking at a mask. Do you understand me, young man?’
I nodded. ‘I think so, Miss Teresa.’
‘Yes, well,’ she said, staring into space as she sometimes did while speaking of Hardy. ‘At least that was my impression. Though he was a good ten years older than me, I like to believe I got glimpses of the man behind the mask. But because the other villagers thought him a bit odd, and because he was difficult to know, he also attracted a lot of idle gossip. I remember there was talk about him and that Sparks girl from Puddletown. What was her first name, Eunice?’
‘That’s right.’ She curled her lip and seemed to spit out the name. ‘Tryphena Sparks. A singularly dull girl, I always thought. We were about the same age, you know, she and I. Anyway, there was talk of a child. Utter rubbish, of course.’ She gazed out of the window at the green, where a group of children were playing a makeshift game of cricket. Her eyes seemed to film over. ‘Many’s the time I used to walk through the woodland past the house, and I would see him sitting there at his upstairs window seat, writing or gazing out on the garden. Sometimes he would wave and come down to talk.’ Suddenly she stopped, then her eyes glittered, and she went on, ‘He used to go and watch hangings in Dorchester. Did you know that?’
I had to confess that I didn’t, my acquaintance with Hardy being recent and restricted only to his published works of fiction, but it never occurred to me to doubt Miss Teresa’s word.
‘Of course, executions were public back then.’ Again she paused, and I thought I saw, or rather sensed a little shiver run through her. Then she said that was enough for today, that it was time for scones and tea.
I think she enjoyed shocking me like that at the end of her little narratives, as if we needed to be brought back to reality with a jolt. I remember on another occasion she looked me in the eye and said, ‘Of course, the doctor tossed him aside as dead at birth, you know. If it hadn’t been for the nurse he would never have survived. That must do something to a man, don’t you think?’
We talked of many other aspects of Hardy and his work, and, for the most part, Miss Eunice remained silent, nodding from time to time. Occasionally, when Miss Teresa’s memory seemed to fail her on some point, such as a name or what novel Hardy might have been writing in a certain year, she would supply the information.
I remember one visit particularly vividly. Miss Teresa stood up rather more quickly than I thought her able to, and left the room for a few moments. I sat politely, sipping my tea, aware of Miss Eunice’s silence and the ticking of the grandfather clock out in the hall. When Miss Teresa returned, she was carrying an old book, or rather two books, which she handed to me.
It was a two-volume edition of Far from the Madding Crowd, and, though I didn’t know it at the time, it was the first edition, from 1874, and was probably worth a small fortune. But what fascinated me even more than Helen Paterson’s illustrations was the brief inscription on the flyleaf: To Tess, With Affection, Tom.
I knew that Tess was the diminutive of Teresa because I had an Aunt Teresa in Harrogate, and it never occurred to me to question that the ‘Tess’ in the inscription was the person sitting opposite me, or that the ‘Tom’ was none other than Thomas Hardy himself.
‘He called you Tess,’ I remember saying. ‘Perhaps he had you in mind when he wrote Tess of the d’Urbervilles?’
Miss Teresa’s face drained of colour so quickly I feared for her life, and it seemed that a palpable chill entered the room. ‘Don’t be absurd, boy,’ she whispered. ‘Tess Durbeyfield was hanged for murder.’
We had been officially at war for about a week, I think, when the police called. There were three men, one in uniform and two in plain clothes. They spent almost two hours in Rose Cottage, then came out alone, got in their car and drove away. We never saw them again.
The day after the visit, though, I happened to overhear our local constable talking with the vicar in St Oswald’s churchyard. By a great stroke of fortune, several yews stood between us and I was able to remain unseen while I took in every word.
‘Murdered, that’s what they say,’ said PC Walker. ‘Bashed his ’ead in with a poker, then chopped ’im up in little pieces and buried ’em in t’garden. Near Dorchester, it were. Village called ’igher Bockhampton. People who lived there were digging an air-raid shelter when they found t’bones. ’Eck of a shock for t’bairns.’
Could they possibly mean Miss Teresa? That sweet old lady who made such delightful scones and had known the young Thomas Hardy? Could she really have bashed someone on the head, chopped him up into little pieces and buried them in the garden? I shivered at the thought, despite the heat.
But nothing more was heard of the murder charge. The police never returned, people found new things to talk about, and after a couple of weeks Miss Eunice and Miss Teresa reappeared in village life much as they had been before. The only difference was that my mother would no longer allow me to visit Rose Cottage. I put up token resistance, but by then my mind was full of Spitfires, secret codes and aircraft carriers anyway.
Events seemed to move quickly in the days after the police visit, though I cannot be certain of the actual time period involved. Four things, however, conspired to put the murder out of my mind for some time: Miss Teresa died, I think in the November of that same year; Miss Eunice retreated into an even deeper silence than before; the war escalated; and I was called up to military service.
The next time I gave any thought to the two ladies of Rose Cottage was in Egypt, of all places, in September 1942. I was on night watch with the Eighth Army, not far from Alamein. Desert nights have an eerie beauty I have never found anywhere else since. After the heat of the day, the cold surprises one, for a start, as does the sense of endless space, but even more surprising is the desertscape of wrecked tanks, jeeps and lorries in the cold moonlight, metal wrenched and twisted into impossible patterns like some petrified forest or exposed coral reef.
To spoil our sleep and shatter our nerves, Rommel’s Afrika Korps had got into the routine of setting up huge amplified speakers and blaring out ‘Lili Marlene’ over and over all night long. It was on a night such as this, while I was trying to stay warm and awake and trying to shut my ears to the music, that I struck up a conversation with a soldier called Sidney Ferris from one of the Dorset regiments.
When Sid told me he had grown up in Piddlehinton, I suddenly thought of the two ladies of Rose Cottage.
‘Did you ever hear any stories of a murder around there?’ I asked, offering Sid a cigarette. ‘A place called Higher Bockhampton?’
‘Lots of murder stories going around when I was a lad,’ he said, lighting up, careful to hide the flame with his cupped hand. ‘Better than the wireless.’
‘This would be a wife murdering her husband.’
He nodded. ‘Plenty of that and all. And husbands murdering their wives. Makes you wonder whether it’s worth getting married, doesn’t it? Higher Bockhampton, you say?’
‘Yes. Teresa Morgan, I believe the woman’s name was.’
He frowned. ‘Name don’t ring no bell,’ he said, ‘but I do recall a tale about some woman who was supposed to have killed her husband, cut him up in pieces and buried them in the garden. A couple of young lads found some bones when they was digging an air-raid shelter a few years back. Animal bones, if you ask me.’
‘But did the villagers believe the tale?’
He shrugged. ‘Don’t know about anyone else, but I can’t say as I did. So many stories like that going around, they can’t all be true, or damn near all of us would be murderers or corpses. Stands to reason, doesn’t it?’ And he took a long drag on his cigarette, holding it in his cupped hand, like most soldiers, so the enemy wouldn’t see the pinpoint of light.
‘Did anyone say what became of the woman?’ I asked.
‘She went away some years later. There was talk of someone else seen running away from the farmhouse, too, the night they said the murder must have taken place.’
‘Could it have been him? The husband?’
Sid shook his head. ‘Too slight a figure. Her husband was a big man, apparently. Anyway, that led to more talk of an illicit lover. There’s always a lover, isn’t there? Have you noticed? You know what kind of minds these country gossips have.’
‘Did anyone say who the other person might have been?’
‘Nobody knew. Just rumours of a vague shape seen running away. These are old wives’ tales we’re talking about.’
‘But perhaps there’s some tru-’
But at that point I was relieved of my watch, and the next weeks turned out to be so chaotic that I never even saw Sid again. I heard later that he was killed at the Battle of Alamein just over a month after our conversation.
I didn’t come across the mystery of Rose Cottage again until the early 1950s. At that time I was living in Eastvale, in a small flat overlooking the cobbled market square. The town was much smaller and quieter than it is today, though little about the square has changed, from the ancient market cross, the Queen’s Arms on the corner, the Norman church and the Tudor-fronted police station.
I had recently published my first novel and was still basking in that exquisite sensation that comes only once in a writer’s career: the day he holds the first printed and bound copy of his very first work. Of course, there was no money in writing, so I worked part-time in a bookshop on North Market Street, and on one of my mornings off, a market day as I remember, I was absorbed in polishing the third chapter of what was to be my second novel when I heard a faint tap at my door. This was enough to startle me, as I rarely had any visitors.
Puzzled and curious, I left my typewriter and went to open the door. There stood a wizened old lady, hunch-shouldered, white-haired, carrying a stick with a brass lion’s head handle and a small package wrapped in brown paper, tied with string.
She must have noticed my confused expression because, with a faint smile, she said, ‘Don’t you recognize me, Mr Riley? Dear, dear, have I aged that much?’
Then I knew her, knew the voice.
‘Miss Eunice!’ I cried, throwing my door open. ‘Please forgive me. I was lost in my own world. Do come in. And you must call me Christopher.’
Once we were settled, with a pot of tea mashing beside us – though, alas, none of Miss Teresa’s scones – I noticed the dark circles under Miss Eunice’s eyes, the yellow around the pupils, the parchment-like quality of her skin, and I knew she was seriously ill.
‘How did you find me?’ I asked.
‘It didn’t take a Sherlock Holmes. Everyone knows where the famous writer lives in a small town like East-vale.’
‘Hardly famous,’ I demurred. ‘But thank you anyway. I never knew you took the trouble to follow my fortunes.’
‘Teresa would have wished it. She was very fond of you, you know. Apart from ourselves and the police, you were the only person in Lyndgarth who ever entered Rose Cottage. Did you know that? You might remember that we kept ourselves very much to ourselves.’
‘Yes, I remember that,’ I told her.
‘I came to give you this.’
She handed me the package and I untied it carefully. Inside was the Smith, Elder & Co. first edition of Far from the Madding Crowd, complete with Hardy’s inscription to ‘Tess’.
‘But you shouldn’t,’ I said. ‘This must be very valuable. It’s a fir-’
She waved aside my objections. ‘Please take it. It is what Teresa would have wished. And I wish it, too. Now listen,’ she went on. ‘That isn’t the only reason I came. I have something very important to tell you, to do with why the police came to visit all those years ago. The thought of going to my grave without telling someone troubles me deeply.’
‘But why me? And why now?’
‘I told you. Teresa was especially fond of you. And you’re a writer,’ she added mysteriously. ‘You’ll understand. Should you wish to make use of the story, please do so. Neither Teresa nor I have any living relatives to offend. All I ask is that you wait a suitable number of years after my death before publishing any account. And that death is expected to occur at some point over the next few months. Does that answer your second question?’
I nodded. ‘Yes. I’m sorry.’
‘You needn’t be. As you may well be aware, I have long since exceeded my three score and ten, though I can hardly say the extra years have been a blessing. But that is God’s will. Do you agree to my terms?’
‘Of course. I take it this is about the alleged murder?’
Miss Eunice raised her eyebrows. ‘So you’ve heard the rumours?’ she said. ‘Well, there was a murder all right. Teresa Morgan murdered her husband, Jacob, and buried his body in the garden.’ She held out her teacup and I poured. I noticed her hand was shaking slightly. Mine was, too. The shouts of the market vendors came in through my open windows.
‘When did she do this?’ was all I could manage.
Miss Eunice closed her eyes and pursed her cracked lips. ‘I don’t remember the exact year,’ she said. ‘But it really doesn’t matter. You could look it up, if you wanted. It was the year the Queen was proclaimed Empress of India.’
I happened to know that was in 1877. I have always had a good memory for historical dates. If my calculations were correct, Miss Teresa would have been about twenty-seven at the time. ‘Will you tell me what happened?’ I asked.
‘That’s why I’m here,’ Miss Eunice said rather sharply. ‘Teresa’s husband was a brute, a bully and a drunkard. She wouldn’t have married him, had she had any choice in the matter. But her parents approved the match. He had his own small farm, you see, and they were only tenants. Teresa was a very intelligent girl, but that counted for nothing in those days. In fact, it was a positive disadvantage. As was her wilfulness. Anyway, he used to beat her to within an inch of her life – where the bruises wouldn’t show, of course. One day she’d had enough of it, so she killed him.’
‘What did she do?’
‘She hit him with the poker from the fireplace and, after darkness had fallen, she buried him deep in the garden. She was afraid that if the matter went to court the authorities wouldn’t believe her and she would be hanged. She had no evidence, you see. And Jacob was a popular man among the other fellows of the village, as is so often the case with drunken brutes. And Teresa was terrified of being publicly hanged.’
‘But did no one suspect her?’
Miss Eunice shook her head. ‘Jacob was constantly talking about leaving his wife and heading for the New World. He used to berate her for not bearing him any children – specifically sons – and threatened that one day she would wake up and he would be gone. Gone to another country to find a woman who could give him the children he wanted. He repeated these threats in the ale house so often that no one in the entire county of Dorset could fail to know about them.’
‘So when he disappeared, everyone assumed he had followed through on his threats to leave her?’
‘Exactly. Oh, there were rumours that his wife had murdered him, of course. There always are when such mysteries occur.’
Yes, I thought, remembering my conversation with Sid Ferris one cold desert night ten years ago: rumours and fancies, the stuff of fiction. And something about a third person seen fleeing from the scene. Well, that could wait.
‘Teresa stayed on at the farm for another ten years,’ Miss Eunice went on. ‘Then she sold up and went to America. It was a brave move, but Teresa no more lacked for courage than she did for beauty. She was in her late thirties then, and even after a hard life, she could still turn heads. In New York, she landed on her feet and eventually married a financier. Sam Cotter. A good man. She also took a companion.’
‘You?’ I asked.
Miss Eunice nodded. ‘Yes. Some years later Sam died of a stroke. We stayed on in New York for a while, but we grew increasingly homesick. We came back finally in 1919, just after the Great War. For obvious reasons, Teresa didn’t want to live anywhere near Dorset, so we settled in Yorkshire.’
‘A remarkable tale,’ I said.
‘But that’s not all,’ Miss Eunice went on, pausing only to sip some tea. ‘There was a child.’
‘I thought you said-’
She took one hand off her stick and held it up, palm out. ‘Christopher, please let me tell the story in my own way. Then it will be yours to do with as you wish. You have no idea how difficult this is for me.’ She paused and stared down at the brass lion’s head for so long I feared she had fallen asleep, or died. Outside in the market square a butcher was loudly trying to sell a leg of mutton. Just as I was about to go over to Miss Eunice, she stirred. ‘There was a child,’ she repeated. ‘When Teresa was fifteen, she gave birth to a child. It was a difficult birth. She was never able to bear any other children.’
‘What happened to this child?’
‘Teresa had a sister called Alice, living in Dorchester. Alice was five years older and already married with two children. Just before the pregnancy started to show, both Teresa and Alice went to stay with relatives in Cornwall for a few months, after it had been falsely announced that Alice was with child again. You would be surprised how often such things happened. When they came back, Alice had a fine baby girl.’
‘Who was the father?’
‘Teresa would never say. The one thing she did make clear was that no one had forced unwanted attentions on her, that the child was the result of a love match, an infatuation. It certainly wasn’t Jacob Morgan.’
‘Did she ever see the child again?’
‘Oh, certainly. What could be more natural than visiting one’s sister and seeing one’s niece grow up? When the girl was a little older, she began to pay visits to the farm, too.’ Miss Eunice stopped here and frowned so hard I thought her brow would crack like dry paper. ‘That was when the problems began,’ she said quietly.
Miss Eunice put her stick aside and held out her teacup. I refilled it. Her hands steady now, she held the cup against her scrawny chest as if its heat were the only thing keeping her alive. ‘This is the most difficult part,’ she said in a faint voice. ‘The part I didn’t know whether I could ever tell anyone.’
‘If you don’t wish-’
She waved my objection aside. ‘It’s all right, Christopher, I didn’t know how much I could tell you before I came here, but I know now. I’ve come this far. I can’t go back now. Just give me a few moments to collect myself.’
Outside, the market was in full swing and during the ensuing silence I could hear the clamour of voices selling and buying, arguing over prices.
‘Did I ever tell you that Teresa was an extremely beautiful young girl?’ Miss Eunice asked after a while.
‘I believe you mentioned it, yes.’
She nodded. ‘Well, she was. And so was her daughter. When she began coming by herself to the house, she was about twelve or thirteen years of age. Jacob didn’t fail to notice her, how well she was “filling out” as he used to say. One day Teresa had gone into the village for firewood and the child arrived in her absence. Jacob, just home from the ale house, was there alone to greet her. Need I say more, Mr Riley?’
I shook my head. ‘I don’t mean to excuse him in any way, but I’m assuming he didn’t know the girl was his stepdaughter?’
‘That is correct. He never knew. Nor did she know Teresa was her mother. Not until much later.’
‘What happened next?’
‘Teresa came in before her husband could have his way with the struggling, half-naked child. Everything else was as I said. She picked up the poker and hit him on the head. Not once, but six times. Then they cleaned up and waited until after dark and buried him deep in the garden. She sent her daughter back to her sister’s and carried on as if her husband had simply left her, just as he had threatened to do.’
So the daughter was the mysterious third person seen leaving the farm in Sid Ferris’s account. ‘What became of the poor child?’ I asked.
Miss Eunice paused again and seemed to struggle for breath. She turned terribly pale. I got up and moved towards her, but she stretched out her hand. ‘No, no. I’m all right, Christopher. Please sit.’
A motor car honked outside and one of the street vendors yelled a curse. Miss Eunice patted her chest. ‘That’s better. I’m fine now, really I am. Just a minor spasm. But I do feel ashamed. I’m afraid I haven’t been entirely truthful with you. It’s so difficult. You see, I was, I am, that child.’
For a moment my mouth just seemed to flap open and shut and I couldn’t speak. Finally, I managed to stammer, ‘You? You are Miss Teresa’s daughter? But you can’t be. That’s not possible.’
‘I didn’t mean to shock you,’ she went on softly, ‘but, really, you only have yourself to blame. When people see two old ladies together, all they see is two old ladies. When you first began calling on us at Rose Cottage fifteen years ago, Teresa was ninety and I was seventy-six. I doubt a fifteen-year-old boy could tell the difference. Nor could most people. And Teresa was always remarkably robust and well preserved.’
When I had regained my composure, I asked her to continue.
‘There is very little left to say. I helped my mother kill Jacob Morgan and bury him. And we didn’t cut him up into little pieces. That part is pure fiction invented by scurrilous gossipmongers. My foster parents died within a short time of one another, around the turn of the century, and Teresa wired me the money to come and live with her in New York. I had never married, so I had no ties to break. I think that experience with Jacob Morgan, brief and inconclusive as it was, must have given me a lifelong aversion to marital relations. Anyway, it was in New York that Teresa told me she was really my mother. She couldn’t tell Sam, of course, so I remained there as her companion, and we always lived more as friends than as mother and daughter.’ She smiled. ‘When we came back to England, we chose to live as two spinsters, the kind of relationship nobody really questions in a village because it would be in bad taste to do so.’
‘How did the police find you after so long?’
‘We never hid our identities. Nor did we hide our whereabouts. We bought Rose Cottage through a local solicitor before we returned from America, so it was listed as our address on the all the official papers we filled in.’ She shrugged. ‘The police soon recognized that Teresa was far too frail to question, let alone put on trial, so they let the matter drop. And to be quite honest, they didn’t really have enough evidence, you know. You didn’t know it – and Teresa would never have told you – but she already knew she was dying before the police came. Just as I know I am dying now.’
‘And did she really die without telling you who your father was?’
Miss Eunice nodded. ‘I wasn’t lying about that. But I always had my suspicions.’ Her eyes sparkled for a moment, the way a fizzy drink does when you pour it. ‘You know, Teresa was always unreasonably jealous of that Tryphena Sparks, and Mr Hardy did have an eye for the young girls.’
Forty years have passed since Miss Eunice’s death, and I have lived in many towns and villages in many countries of the world. Though I have often thought of the tale she told me, I have never been moved to commit it to paper until today.
Two weeks ago, I moved back to Lyndgarth, and as I was unpacking I came across that first edition of Far from the Madding Crowd. 1874: the year Hardy married Emma Gifford. As I puzzled again over the inscription, words suddenly began to form themselves effortlessly in front of my eyes, and all I had to do was copy them down.
Now that I have finished, I suddenly feel very tired. It is a hot day, and the heat haze has muted the greens, greys and browns of the steep hillsides. Looking out of my window, I can see the tourists lounging on the village green. The young men are stripped to the waist, some bearing tattoos of butterflies and angels across their shoulder blades; the girls sit with them in shorts and T-shirts, laughing, eating sandwiches, drinking from pop or beer bottles.
One young girl notices me watching and waves cheekily, probably thinking I’m an old pervert, and as I wave back I think of another writer – a far, far greater writer than I could ever be – sitting at his window seat writing. He looks out of the window and sees the beautiful young girl passing through the woods at the bottom of the garden. He waves. She waves back. And she lingers, picking wild flowers, as he puts aside his novel and walks out into the warm summer air to meet her.
When Frank walked through to the kitchen, glass crunched under his feet, and he sent knives, forks and spoons skittering across the linoleum. He turned on the light. Someone had broken in while he had been at the Legion. They had cut the wire screen and smashed the glass in the kitchen door. They must have emptied the drawers looking for silverware because the cutlery was all over the place.
Someone had also been in the front room. Whoever it was had knocked or pushed over the tailor’s dummy and the little table beside his armchair where he kept his reading glasses, book and coffee mug.
Suddenly afraid in case they were still in the house, Frank climbed on a stool to reach the high cupboard above the sink. There, at the back, where nobody would look beyond Joan’s unused baking dishes, cake tins and cookie cutters shaped like hearts and lions, lay his old service revolver wrapped in an oily cloth. He had smuggled it back from the war and kept it all these years. Kept it loaded, too.
With the gun in his hand, he felt safer as he checked the rest of the house. Slowly, with all the lights on, he climbed the stairs. They had broken the padlock on Joan’s room. Heart thumping, he turned on the light. When he saw the mess, he slumped against the wall.
They had emptied out all her dresser drawers, scattering underwear and trinkets all over the shiny pink coverlet on the bed. And it looked as if someone had swept off the lotions and perfumes from the dressing table right onto the floor. One of the caps must have come loose because he could smell Joan’s sharp, musky perfume.
The lacquered jewellery case, the one he had bought her in New York with the ballet dancer that spun to the ‘Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy’ when you opened it, lay silent and empty on the bed. Frank sat down, gun hanging between his legs. They’d taken all Joan’s jewellery. Why? The stuff obviously wasn’t valuable. Just trinkets, really. None of it could possibly be worth anything to them. They had even taken her wedding ring.
Frank remembered the day he bought it all those years ago: the fairground across the street from the small jeweller’s; the air filled with the smells of candyfloss and fried onions and the sounds of children laughing and squealing with delight. A little girl in a white frock with pink smocking had smiled at him as she passed by, one arm hugging a huge teddy bear and the other hand holding her mother’s. How light his heart had been. Inside, the ring was inscribed, ‘FRANK AND JOAN. 21 JULY 1946. NO GREATER LOVE.’ The bastards. It could mean nothing to them.
Listlessly, he checked his own room. Drawers pulled out, socks and underwear scattered on the bedclothes. Nothing worth stealing except the spare change he kept on his bedside table. Sure enough, it was gone, the $3.37 he had piled neatly into columns of quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies last night.
They didn’t seem to have got far in the spare room, where he kept his war mementos. Maybe they got disturbed, scared by a sound, before they could open the lock on the cabinet. Anyway, everything was intact: his medals; the antique silver cigarette lighter that had never let him down; the bayonet; the Nazi armband; the tattered edition of Mein Kampf; the German dagger with the mother-of-pearl swastika inlaid in its handle.
Frank went downstairs and considered what to do. He knew he should put the gun back in its hiding place and call the police. But that would mean intrusion, questions. He valued his privacy and he knew that the neighbours thought he was a bit of an oddball. What would the police think of him, a man who kept the torso of a tailor’s dummy in his living-room, along with yards of moth-eaten material and tissue-paper patterns? What if they found his gun?
No, he couldn’t call the police; he couldn’t have them trampling all over his house. They never caught burglars, anyway; everyone knew that. Weary, and still a little frightened, Frank nailed a piece of plywood over the broken glass, then carried his gun upstairs with him to bed.
The following morning was one of those light, airy days of early June, the kind that brings the whole city to the Beaches. The sky was robin’s-egg blue, the sun shone like a pale yolk, and a light breeze blew off the lake to keep the temperature comfortable. In the gardens, apple and cherry blossom clung to the trees and the tulips were still in full bloom. It was a day for sprinklers, swimsuits, barbecues, bicycle rides, volleyball and lawn sales.
Normally, Frank would have gone down to the boardwalk, about the only exercise he got these days. Today, however, a change had come over him; a shadow had crept into his life and chilled him to the bone, despite the fine weather. He felt a deep lassitude and malaise. So much so that he delayed getting out of bed.
Maybe it was the dream made him feel that way. Though perhaps it wasn’t right to call it a dream when it was so close to something that had really happened. It recurred every few months, and he had come to accept it now, much as one accepts the chronic pain of an old wound, as a kind of cross to bear.
Separated from his unit once in rural France during the Second World War, he had dragged himself out of a muddy stream, cigarettes tied up safely in army-issue condoms to keep them dry, and entered a forest. A few yards in, he had come face to face with a young German soldier, who looked as if he had also probably lost his comrades. They stared open-mouthed at each other for the split second before Frank, operating purely on survival instinct, aimed his revolver first and fired. The boy simply looked surprised and disappointed at the red patch that spread over his chest, then his face emptied of all expression for ever. Light-headed and numb, Frank moved on, looking for his unit.
It wasn’t the first German he had killed, but it was the first he had looked in the eye. The incident haunted him all the way back to his unit, but a few hours later he had convinced himself that he had done the right thing and put it behind him.
After the war the memory surfaced from time to time in dreams. Details changed, of course. Each time the soldier had a different face, for example. Once, Frank even reached forward and put his finger into the bullet hole. The soft, warm flesh felt like half-set jelly. He was sure he had never touched it in real life.
Another time, the boy spoke to him. He spoke in English and Frank couldn’t remember what he said, though he was sure it was a poem, and the words ‘I knew you in this dark’ stuck in his mind. But Frank knew nothing of poetry.
This time the bullet had gone straight through, leaving a clean circle the size of a ring, and Frank had seen a winter landscape, all flat white and grey, through the hole.
He still had the gun he had used that day. It was the same one he had got down from the high cupboard last night when he thought the burglars might still be in the house. It was the one he felt for now under the pillow beside him.
Had he got up that day? He couldn’t remember. He sat propped against pillows on his bed that night watching television as usual. He felt agitated, and whatever the figures on the screen were doing or saying didn’t register. For some reason, he couldn’t get the wedding ring out of his mind, the senselessness of its theft and the unimaginable value it had for him. He hadn’t realized it fully until the ring was gone.
Then he thought he heard some noise outside. He turned the sound off with the remote and listened. Sure enough, he could hear voices. Beyond his back garden was a narrow alleyway, then came the backs of the stores and low-rise apartment buildings on Queen Street. Sometimes in this warm weather, when everyone had their windows open, you could hear arguments, television programmes and loud music. These were real voices, Frank could tell. Television voices sounded different. There were two of them, a woman’s and a man’s, hers getting louder.
‘No, Daryl, it won’t do!’ he heard the woman shout. ‘Haven’t I told you before it’s wrong to steal? Haven’t I brought you up to respect other people’s property? Haven’t I?’
Frank couldn’t hear the muffled answer, no matter how much he strained. He dragged himself up from the bed and went to the window.
‘So if Marvin Johnson stuck his finger in a fire, you’d do that as well, would you? Christ, give me a break. How stupid can you get?’
Another inaudible reply.
‘Right. So how do you think they feel, eh? The people whose house you broke into. Come on. What did you do with it?’
Frank couldn’t hear the reply, though he held his breath.
‘Don’t lie to me. What do you think this is? It’s a gold chain, isn’t it? And what about these? Don’t tell me you’ve suddenly started wearing earrings. I found these hidden in your room. You stole them, didn’t you?’
Frank’s heart knocked against his ribs. Joan had a gold chain and earrings, and they were among the items that had been stolen. But what about the ring? The ring?
‘Shut up!’ the woman yelled. ‘I don’t want to hear it. I want you to put together everything you stole and take it back, or so help me I’ll call the police. I don’t care if you are my son. Do you understand me?’
There came another inaudible reply followed by a sharp smack, then the sound of a door slamming. After that Frank heard a sound he didn’t recognize at first. A cat in the garden, maybe? Then he realized it was the woman crying.
About five of the apartments in the building had lights on at the back, and Frank hadn’t been able to tell from which one the argument came. Now, though, he could see the silhouette of the woman with her head bowed and her hands held to her face. He thought he knew who she was. He had seen both her and her son on the street.
Frank sat in the coffee shop across from the apartment building early the next morning and watched people come and go. The building was one of those old places with a heavy wood and glass door, so warped by heat and time that it wouldn’t shut properly. He knew who he was looking for, all right. It was that peroxide blonde, the one who looked like a hooker.
At about eight-thirty, her son, the thief, came out. He had a spotty face, especially around the nose and mouth, and he obviously had a skinhead haircut, or a completely shaved head, under the baseball hat he wore the wrong way around. He also wore a shiny silver jacket with a stylized black eagle on the back under some red writing. Below his baggy trousers, crotch right down to the knees, the laces of his sneakers trailed loose. At the corner, he hooked up with