Coffin on the Water
Coffin on the Water
Coffin on the Water
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd. 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF
First published by William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd, 1986
Copyright © Gwendoline Butler 1986
Gwendoline Butler asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library
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Source ISBN: 9780006176305
Ebook Edition © JUNE 2014 ISBN: 9780007544646 Version: 2017-04-25
It was the biggest feast since the feeding of the five thousand, or so it was felt locally in Greenwich, and their outliers, the Hythe and the Wick. In the spring of 1946 the General Assembly of the United Nations was entertained to a banquet in the Painted Hall of the Royal Naval College. Premier Attlee welcomed them. The feast was austere, in tune with the rationed times: a soup, game, and a pudding, but the wines were good.
Present, in a purely professional capacity and not eating, were Chief Superintendent Dander, and Inspectors Warwich and Banbury. Also there were a troupe of young detectives-in-training, and among them John Coffin and Alex Rowley.
Also present was a murderer-to-be, like a bridegroom in waiting.
The bodies came later.
The bodies came drifting in, delivered by the river, bearing a greeting card as if they were a birthday present. The river is a part of this story; the river supported the bodies, carrying them on the tide to their appointed destination. A body dropped on a rising tide in the river somewhere as yet unknown, between Deptford and Greenwich, to be carried up river, then back by the ebbing water towards Fidder’s Reach where it will be deposited on the mud on schedule. Or so the killer thought.
Looked at later, as through the eyes of John Coffin, young detective still on probation, it was a hell of a journey they made for the hell of a purpose.
What a case to test the nerve. He was on the edge of things in that first big case and he knew it. Yet the fact that he was so, helped in the end. Indeed, led to its solution. If you can call a solution what was so terrible a resolution.
At that time he had a world to discover and a life: his own. Once in June 1944, he thought he had lost it, and once nearly had, but the shell from the Ruhr didn’t quite do it. He came back from the dead, as we do occasionally. Now he had to find out what that life was worth and make something of it. The world was London, 1946. He joined the police.
Why the police? He wasn’t widely known among his pals as an idealist or a law enforcer, but he must have had something there. One of his fellow police-cadets had wanted to be a ballet dancer. You could never tell where your feet will lead you. Give him ten years or so and he might know the answer. And when he did, would it be the diary of his years?
Around the first body the dark, oily water moved sluggishly, heavy with all the filth it bore. The body was not its only burden. Nor the first body, nor to be the last. Ships, tugs, barges had passed through it for decades, each generation depositing its own share of muck, coal dust and oil. Here at Greenwich the river was lined with docks and wharves so that the water lapped upon stone, not grass. Factories and warehouses shoved themselves up to the banks with their own unpromising war-stained profiles, nose to nose. Here and there a bomb-broken nose showed itself but the essential face of the docks and the river was unchanged, which might have surprised the bombers. Across one wall someone had written: ‘Down with Adolf’, making his mark on one warehouse. The rain was washing it away: Hitler’s was a name from the past already, one you didn’t bother with, and a wag had written underneath: ‘Down with Stafford Cripps’.
It was visible from the railway which passed near at this point, adding its own dust to the dirt already delivered by the centuries of passing trade.
From the tops of trams and buses running down the main road between Greenwich and Woolwich on the one hand and Deptford on the other the river could not be seen, but you could always smell it.
The smell of the river might have been the last thing the victims had in their nostrils before the breath went out of them.
Looking down on the river from Greenwich Park was the small dome of the Royal Observatory. General Wolfe, victor over the French in Canada, stared down from his statue on the Royal Naval College housed in Wren’s great buildings, once destined to be a palace. If you walked along its riverside façade you could fancy yourself in Venice.
The police station was away from the river, at the bottom of the hill not far from the Deptford Road, and was presently housed, due to the Blitz, in an old school. Nearby was a factory which exuded a pungent smell, at once oily yet sharp, not exactly pleasant but somehow homely. A smell you could recognize and live with. To the locals it was the concentrated essence of South London, that smell. Men in the army in Germany or in the Middle East had been heard to say: ’I wish I could smell Deller’s again. One whiff and I’d know I was home.’
The smell was exceedingly strong in the police station, so strong that after a while you ceased to notice it, although it always hit you first thing in the morning when you experienced it with a crystalline sharpness.
It was a soft summer’s day, the light luminous and golden, a haze over the city making every view gentle and romantic.
And the first body was already on the way.
Do you like bodies? Dead bodies? Naturally you do not. But in Greenwich, 1946, there was a man who did and he was waiting for this one; whenever life landed one near him he thought of it as a bonus. His actual contact with bodies was minimal although not negligible.
When the murderer first saw Rachel Esthart it was before his interest in dead bodies had become so particular and intense. He had gone looking for her, no other way of putting it, because he wanted to see what she was like. When he set eyes on her he was both fascinated and repelled. A monstre sacré, he thought, quoting. Vénus toute entière a sa proie attachée. He himself was much more than a bystander, by nature, more of a precipitant.
In the police station Sergeant Tew, born not in this district but further down the river at Rotherhithe, and only just come into Greenwich on his promotion, was very conscious of the smell of Deller’s as his breakfast digested: scrambled, reconstituted dried eggs which his wife had managed to make extraordinarily indigestible.
He was standing at the wooden counter which protected him from the public, writing some notes in his careful, legible script, remembering at one and the same time the public events that would demand the attention of them all soon and a private message from his wife to call on the fishmonger on his way home for some whale steak. He hated whale steak.
A white hand fell upon his arm. It looked soft and feminine with delicate if grubby fingers but its grip had force.
He looked up. He was a tall, sedate man who was sometimes lucky, sometimes unlucky. It was what marked him. He could almost tell which it was the moment he woke up. Today he had felt unlucky.
‘Officer, I need your help.’
He saw a tall, slender woman dressed in a plum-coloured velvet coat trimmed with dark fur. She wore a tiny saucer hat of copper-coloured feathers which no one in Greenwich would have recognized as the creation of Paulette of Paris circa 1929, but which the Sergeant’s innate sense of style told him was not the sort of hat his wife wore to church. Beneath the delicately pleated hem of her dress peeped a pair of pointed grey suede shoes. Everything she had on from hat to shoe needed a good brush.
‘I request your assistance.’ The voice was deep, commanding, with every syllable beautifully enunciated. ‘In fact I demand it.’
She had immense black eyes.
He straightened himself from the paper, brought to order by the voice. All his life he had been brought to attention by such privileged voices.
‘Madam,’ he began. You didn’t say Missis or Mother as you might have done to a less educated voice. ‘What can I do?’
‘I want you to help me find my son.’ The hands were held together now, twisting, plaintive. Thus might Desdemona have held her hands out to Othello. Or Cordelia. They were pleading hands, eloquent hands, theatrical hands.
‘Can I have your name, madam?’
She ignored this request.
‘It’s what the police do, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, ma’am. If we can. Now let’s get this all clear. It’s your son? Missing, is he? How long has he been gone?’ He decided to leave names and addresses for the time being, he could sense this was a tricky one.
He didn’t answer: all comment was knocked out of him. Seventeen years. He had been about thirteen himself. It was pre-war, and that was already history.,
This was how he described it later: So, I said. That’s a long time, madam, how old would he be? Twenty-two if he’s still alive, she said. Then she said that she’d had a card saying he was sending her a present. But it hadn’t come.
‘Yes. A correspondence card postmarked Greenwich. Stamped, came through the post. It said: “A present will be delivered today from your son.” That was two days ago. It hasn’t come. So you see, he cannot be far away, I have to find him.’
‘Perhaps the present will come along later, ma’am. And him with it.’ He began to form a sentence in his mind about the Salvation Army finding people, when he remembered that this missing son had been gone seventeen years, since the age of five.
She was having a strange effect on him: he had the feeling that if he asked his limbs to move they would not answer his command.
‘You’ve had a bad time,’ he said awkwardly, surprising himself with his sympathy.
Three men appeared through the swing doors behind him: one older man in a dark suit with untidy hair, two young men, one very dark, one very fair, with golden to auburn hair.
They came on stage moving like veterans, natural actors, and dead on cue.
‘So that’s it about the Royal visit,’ said the older man: Detective-Inspector Banbury. ‘Now you know what’s what. And you can stop thinking about the Shepherd business.’
He was only half joking: they had recently been dealing with the murder of a prostitute in a caravan off the Woolwich Road, an unpleasant murder. And there had been complications with a child. He had been surprised at the effect on his two young men and would be adding his judgement to his report on them. They had reacted too strongly. Then he looked across to where the woman and Harry Tew still confronted each other. She was keeping up a soft babble of sound. He walked across. ‘Come on now, Mrs Esthart, sit down and we’ll see what we can do.’ Over his shoulder he said: ‘Ring up Engel House and ask someone to come up here and fetch Mrs Esthart. Number in the desk-book.’ He had written the number there himself. For good reason.
‘She’s had a drop, I think, Tom.’ Tew was dialling. Presently he said, ‘No answer.’
John Coffin came forward: ‘I think I can help. I know who to get. A girl called Stella Pinero. She lodges with Mrs Esthart. It’s all right, sir, I’ve got to know her quite well. I’ve met Mrs Esthart once or twice. Alex and I both have. Good morning, Mrs Esthart. Stella will handle this.’
‘Stella? This is John. Could you come down and collect Mrs Esthart? I think she needs help.’ He hesitated. ‘She’s in some sort of trouble.’
‘What’s it all about,’ said Harry Tew. ‘Who is that?’
‘Rachel Esthart,’ said Inspector Banbury. ‘A famous lady and I’ll tell you why: she’s been under suspicion for murder for nearly twenty years.’
Seventeen years ago, Rachel Esthart, an actress at the height of her power, famous, glamorous, wealthy, had suffered a terrible tragedy. Look at it how you will, calling her guilty or not, it was tragic.
Banbury said: ‘Seventeen-odd years ago her son was drowned. She took him out for a picnic. Or so she says. But it turned out later she had left her husband after a quarrel over a love-affair. She was jealous. She’d been drinking, and she wasn’t used to drink. Ran away, taking the boy. They were both missing. She turned up later, wandering around. Lost her memory, she said.’
‘And the boy?’
‘He wasn’t with her. She said she didn’t know where he was. Seemed surprised to be asked. But his body was found in the river. Drowned.’
‘A lot of suspicion fell on her. But the coroner brought in a verdict of accidental drowning. Didn’t stop the talk, though.’
‘And she would never accept that he was dead. Carried on as if he’d come back. Always said he’d be home again. And when he didn’t, and didn’t, she retired to Angel House and hid.’
‘I remember hearing,’ said Tew. ‘It’s coming back to me.’ He thought Rachel Esthart looked calmer and more rational now, as if Banbury had had a good effect.
‘Over the years she’s often been in asking, roughly speaking, if we’ve got him. And of course, we never have. So what’s new this time?’
In a wondering way Harry Tew said: ‘She told me she’d had a card from her son saying he was sending her a present, only it hasn’t come.’
He knew now what it was that was unlucky about the day: it was this visit of Rachel Esthart. It depressed him. Especially with whale steak for supper.
‘She hasn’t been in lately. To tell you the truth I thought she’d given up. Cruel of someone to start her up again like this as a joke.’ Banbury felt angry.
If it was a joke.
The day Stella Pinero arrived in Greenwich was also the day a murder started to grow. Think of murder as a plant that has to have time to grow. Think of this murder as a plant with deep roots. The times get the murders that suit them. These murders were as bang in period as a page-boy hairstyle or a square-shouldered suit.
It is harsh to associate Stella with murder, pretty, charming, ambitious Stella, but the truth is Stella, and that little streak of ruthlessness in her, was integral to the plot. Yet, if it had not been her, one has to say, it might have been another girl. In which case the story would be different, and not the one laid out here. Yet even that may be doubtful. Probably it was all laid out, the way it would go, very early on.
Perhaps, as some philosophers suggest, there are alternative universes in which these murders are not taking place.
Stella Pinero, a young policeman called John Coffin, and another, Alex Rowley, arrived on Greenwich railway station on the same day. It was new boys’ day. Stella Pinero going to the theatre, the two young men to their lodging-house and then on to report to the police station. Never mind it being Sunday. Actresses and policemen travel on Sunday.
One other person got off the train with them, but they were too busy noticing each other to notice him.
It was a cold day in March with a light rain just beginning to fall.
Stella walked up the platform by the side of a porter pushing a trolley with her bags on it; all she owned in the world was in those bags and she had to keep an eye on them. She was aware of the two young men following her, aware that they must be admiring her long, silken legs and hopeful that her stockings didn’t have a ladder in them.
Without a word they hurried their pace so that they were just behind her when the porter deposited her bags. Her name was written in large white letters across the cases so they knew who she was from the beginning. Where she was going also. Theatre Royal, Greenwich, said a large label.
In the street outside an aged hansom cab with an elderly horse was drawn up, with the driver sitting slumped over the reins.
‘I thought there’d be a taxi-cab,’ Stella was saying in a puzzled voice.
‘No taxis, miss. Not since the war. But there’s old John and his horse.’
‘Oh, the poor old horse. I don’t think I could. I think I must be stronger than he is.’
But she had started to shift her bags when a tall, slender man came out of the station and cut across her path, apparently without noticing her, and jumped into the cab. He was driven off.
Stella stood there looking.
‘Well, I’m damned. What cheek.’ John Coffin came forward; this was his chance.
Stella was staring after the cab. ‘It’s Edward Kelly. I saw his face. I don’t suppose he even noticed me.’
Coffin knew the name. He liked the theatre himself. ‘He’s quite a plain chap, too.’
Stella said nothing. She knew all about Edward Kelly’s plainness and what it did to you. Edward was supposed to exercise a kind of droit de seigneur over the junior members of the cast. Might not be true, of course, but she rather hoped it was.
Or did she? She was still a virgin. Well, more or less, she told herself. That is, rather less than more.
Alex picked up one bag, John Coffin the other, and together they walked with her to the theatre which could be seen from the station, lying riverwards.
Stella was friendly to them as they walked, chattering away telling them who she was and what a marvellous chance it was for her to work at the Theatre Royal, Greenwich, at this stage of her career. The Delaneys were real old pros; she was looking forward to working in their company. But Coffin got the clear impression that her thoughts were elsewhere.
Both young men were trained to notice things: John noticed that she was pale beneath her rouge: Alex Rowley noticed that she was stronger than she looked, she had picked up her case quite purposefully and it was exceedingly heavy. One of those frail toughs, he thought sardonically, half attracted, half put off.
The Theatre Royal, Greenwich, had been hit twice in the war, once in the first blitz and once by a buzz-bomb in 1944. Repairs had been kept to a minimum but it had a friendly old face, redolent of cheerful queues, with boxes of chocolates in the stalls and oranges in the pit.
Stella started to mime them a kiss, then changed her mind and delivered a kiss on each young man’s cheek. It was a professional job, leaving no lipstick and hardly to be felt.
‘Thanks, boys. Come around to my dressing-room one night and we’ll have a drink. I don’t know where I’ll be living, the theatre is finding me a place. ‘Bye for now.’
She disappeared into the theatre where they could hear her voice calling out her arrival.
‘Well, that’s her settled. What about us?’
For an answer John Coffin produced a piece of paper from his pocket. ‘Mrs Lorimer, The Regency Hotel, Abigail Crescent. That’s me and, I presume, you too. There’s a map Come on.’
Coffin said he knew a lot about the district, he had a connection.
‘Mate of mine in the army, his dad runs a restaurant there. Vic Padovani.’ Coffin remembered Vic well. A willing man but clumsy, an unlucky soldier. But likeable. ‘We called him Robert Taylor.’ With looks such as his, Vic could get any girl he wanted, and did, but they never stayed with him long. Unlucky. ‘I’ll look him up.’
They walked together up the hill towards Blackheath, not yet friends but ready to like each other, while recognizing they might have to be rivals.
They had met at Morley College, South London, which had been the venue for a special training course for the new intake for the Metropolitan Police, coming straight in from the army. Alex was the one who had wanted to be a dancer. Both John Coffin and Alex Rowley were members of a group specially selected for accelerated promotion. They had done their time on the beat in another part of London, taken the Morley College course, and were now detective-constables sent out, almost like rations, to this part of South Bank London by the river. They knew that there must be a personal file on them in the police archives with observations on their character, intelligence and behaviour. They were both conscious of having covered up something.
Mrs Lorimer’s Private Hotel, over-grandly called The Regency, was part of a terrace of brick houses run up by a speculative builder in 1850 and maintained in dubious repair by successive owners ever since. Bombed in 1940, the hotel had not had a pane of glass in its windows for nearly five years, making do with yellow paper which let in some light but no views. Mrs Lorimer, a tall, grey-haired woman forever in a hurry, had been an air-raid warden and had not lost her air of command. She had personally doused fire-bombs in the great fire-raid of December 1940, remained calm when an unexploded land-mine descended on the roof of a crowded shelter, been awarded the George Medal, and been the scourge and terror of her neighbours.
She felt a certain stigma attached to having a police-constable (even if a detective) in the house. How would Lady Olivia feel? The old girl had a bottle of whisky at the moment and that was keeping her occupied for the time being, but when that was finished, she would be out and looking for battle. Mrs Lorimer sighed: she was difficult, but a ‘name’ and a family trust paid her bills.
She showed the young men to their rooms, almost with an air of apology, which prepared them for what they were getting: a low basement room for John and an attic for Alex.
Or they could choose. And could she have their ration books, please? Did policemen get extra, she had heard they did? She took their ration cards and departed triumphantly, muttering about individual butter dishes.
‘Toss you for it.’
They tossed and John got the attic. He had been buried for twelve hours by a mortar shell on the way to the Rhine and was mildly claustrophobic as a result. Also, given a heightened perception of the world. Being blown up seemed to have peeled a skin off his eyes. He saw everything, fresh and clear as if it was a picture drawn by a sharp-eyed stranger.
His room had one tiny window which opened outwards with a jerk that would have robbed it of any panes of glass if it had had any.
From where he stood he could look down on the district in which he would be working. Below were the usual number of spivs, black marketeers, pimps, prostitutes, con men, thieves, and probably murderers. He would get to know most of them and if he did his job well they would disappear from the scene. For a while, anyway.
He could see right down the hill towards the river. The Royal Observatory was to his right amidst the trees of Greenwich Park. Down there but not visible was Wren’s great palace, now a naval college, and a museum.
He found the view pleasing and touching. He noticed that the roof had an area with the tiles missing; when it rained his room would be damp.
Down there too was Stella and he meant to go on knowing her, but he wasn’t thinking of her. Down there also was someone else he was interested in. A faceless, nameless someone at the moment. He had his own problem there. Coffin’s own mystery, he thought.
There was the sound of music floating up from below. A window was open and in that room someone was playing a piano.
He closed his own window to go downstairs to call on Alex. As he went down the stairs he could swear that from behind one door he heard an old woman singing. She was singing ‘The Wearing of the Green’. That would have been treason once, he thought, might be even now for all he knew.
Alex was sitting on his bed polishing his shoes.
John Coffin sat down on the only chair. So was his bed hard. They wouldn’t stay here for ever, it was temporary while they looked around, but anywhere to live was hard to come by at the moment.
‘Hope she’s all right.’
‘The girl. Stella.’
‘Oh, she’ll fall on her feet,’ said Coffin; he knew a survivor when he saw one. He was one himself.
There was a photograph of a pretty woman with a young boy on the table. It must be Alex’s mother.
‘You got a brother, Alex?’
‘No.’ He was the boy in the photograph, then.
‘A sister, yes. Half-sister. What about you?’
‘No,’ John Coffin considered. ‘Not as far as I know.’ He added, ‘Wonder if we’ll get anything to eat?’
Stella did not regard herself as having fallen on her feet.
She had run happily into the warm, dark womb of backstage Theatre Royal shouting that she had arrived, and straight into the arms of Joan and Albie Delaney who were standing briskly engaged in one of their arguments.
They broke off to welcome her warmly, and at once got down to the essentials. ‘Want you on stage with book this afternoon.’ Joan Delaney never wasted words or time. Two sharp,’ and she turned back to her argument with Albie, which appeared to concern Eddie Kelly who was sitting smoking astride a wooden kitchen chair, apparently indifferent to what went on.
‘Now, Eddie, about the bloody lighting in the last act.’
Joan and Albie worked as a team. Joan was said to be the practical one and Albie the artistic conscience, but Joan’s vaunted practicality existed only for theatrical purposes and did not extend to everyday life, where the pair lived in chaos. This showed itself at once with Stella.
‘What digs have you got me?’
‘Ah.’ Joan wrenched her head away from Eddie who was saying softly that it was his bloody face that the bloody lighting was turning bloody green and he bloody well wouldn’t have it. ‘I couldn’t get you in anywhere, dear. I tried old Madam Lorimer but she’d let her last room to two young men. You can share with us till something turns up. Doss down with us, Albie and me, in our sitting-room.’
‘That’s very kind of you.’ Any doubt in Stella’s voice was justified. The couple’s quarrels were famous and their cuisine notorious. Then she remembered that she was an actress and they were her boss. ‘Thank you,’ she said with false enthusiasm.
‘Poor girl.’ Eddie got up. ‘Haven’t we met?’
‘Yes. At the station. You took the cab.’
‘I had it ordered, my dear. In my permanent pay. More or less. My gammy leg.’ He had lost a foot at Dunkirk. ‘But I’d have given you a lift.’
Stella turned to Joan and Albie. ‘Can’t I sleep in the dressing-room. Just for a bit? While I look round.’
Eddie moved nearer towards her. ‘The girl will perish. All the dressing-rooms leak. Albie, assert your authority.’
Albie asserted his authority, and in a characteristic way. ‘Eddie, dear boy, you do something. Why not try Rachel Esthart’s? You seem to have influence with her. She must have more empty rooms than Buckingham Palace.’
‘Rachel Esthart?’ Stella couldn’t stop herself. ‘Is she still alive?’
‘Say that and she will love you.’
‘But she was a marvellous actress.’
‘Still could be, still could be,’ said Albie. ‘If she hadn’t hidden herself from the world.’
Eddie moved towards the telephone, carefully not limping. ‘I’ll try. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. Don’t let her make a slave of you.’
Joan said, in a whisper, ‘He hates you to see him limping. The funny thing is – he’s all right on the stage. Wouldn’t know. That’s actors for you.’
At the door Eddie made a dramatic gesture. ‘Rachel Esthart and you – I hope I know what I’m doing.’
Afterwards Stella thought that Edward had known exactly what he was doing and he was doing it for Rachel Esthart.
Edward soon reappeared to say Mrs Esthart would receive her, she actually used those words, which was Stella’s first intimation of the regal way Rachel had sometimes. ‘But we’ll have to walk. I’ve got no petrol for my motorbike. Joan will send the bags up in a barrow with one of the men later on.’
On the way up Maze Hill, threading past the church, seeing the Royal Observatory on their left, Eddie walked fast, even while limping.
I’ll show you round, if you like. Interesting district. Where were you working last?’ The perennial question between actors, what really interested them.
‘Windsor Rep,’ said Stella. ‘Before that, Dundee. Albie saw me at Windsor. Offered me this. I wanted to be in London.’
‘Oh? Any reason?’
‘No. Just nearer the big managements. Tennent’s, and that lot. My agent said it was the right move.’
‘Ah. His right. Post-war theatre’s going to be different from pre-war. Lot of the old names will be on the way down now. There’ll be a new wave. Old management giving up, new ones coming in, new money, new ideas.’
‘I’m looking forward to it.’ Stella intended to be the new wave. Now the war was over, she felt a whole new world was beckoning to her with promise.
‘Meanwhile you can’t do better than be with Joan and Albie. They know change is coming. Watch them. If they go up, they may take you with them.’ Or they might go down; that too was possible.
‘I hope so.’ Stella was getting breathless, keeping up with his fast, limping walk.
‘They’ve got something good coming up. Marvellous publicity. A Masque for the Royal Family when they come to Greenwich later on. That’s why they’ve got you. You’ll be The Virgin.’
‘Don’t worry. Nothing personal.’ He laughed. ‘But your predecessor as junior female lead – ’ Joan always played the leading lady roles herself- ‘didn’t look too maidenly.’
He gave her a crooked smile but did not answer. ‘About Rachel Esthart, I’d better prepare you. The reason she’s doing this Miss Havisham act – which you’ll see for yourself when you get to Angel House – is she had a tragedy in her life. Lost her son.’
‘He was drowned. Rather mysterious. You’re too young to remember, I expect. But she has never accepted he was dead. And who knows? She might be right. Perhaps he isn’t dead. People do come back.’ Stella nodded. The war had opened minds to strangeness and wildness in the world. Nothing was quite as ordinary as it had been before 1939. Anything could happen now. She believed him. It was the way things could go. Nothing was too fantastic to be ruled out now. It was part of how the world was, not solid, but transient, movable. Edward went on, ‘She isn’t mad. Or self-deceiving. Nor so much of a recluse as she pretends. She sees me; old friends like the Delaneys; it’s the big world outside she’s frightened of. It chewed her up once and she can’t take any more. I suppose you could call it a depressive illness if you wanted. But she’s a great woman, Stella, never forget that.’ He stopped talking suddenly. ‘Here we are. This is Angel House. Don’t let her know I’ve told you anything. Let it be as if you didn’t know.’
Angel House was a handsome brick building, probably built at the end of the eighteenth century, with a plain, dignified face. During the Blitz the roof had been damaged but the house had suffered no real hurt. Yet, without there being anything wrong with it, the house looked closed, turned in on itself.
Over the front door was the figure of a kneeling angel, an unexpected and baroque touch, but which provided the name. He rang the bell. ‘I won’t wait. Just see you in, then go. You’ll be let in by Florrie. She was Rachel’s dresser in the old days. She’s no angel but you’ll just have to make the best of her and get on with her.’
The door was opened by a small, plump woman wearing a dark apron. Sharp brown eyes were set in a sallow face.
‘You’ve been quick,’ she said unpromisingly. It was at this point (the very moment at which the two young men at Mrs Lorimer’s were talking of her) that Stella felt her spirits dip. This wasn’t going to be easy; she was used to life not being easy, you did not join the theatre expecting a soft ride, but unwelcoming digs she did hate. ‘Madam said you’d be coming and where to put you.’
Inside, Angel House had a certain grandeur with a black and white flagged hall dominated by a curving staircase which rose splendidly, like a prayer, to a balcony above. But it smelt damp, and it was undeniably dusty.
‘Come on, Miss Pinero.’ She had the name off pat, a quick study, obviously. ‘I’ll show you where Madam wants you to go.’ She led the way down the hall with a determined, shrewd little manner that confirmed Stella’s belief that, as with so many dressers, she was an exactress. She threw open a door. ‘It’s where Madam used to sleep when the raids were on.’
The room was square with two small oval windows, decorated in the ’thirties style with heavy leather chairs and a big wooden desk, a kind of library, only instead of books the walls were lined with playbills, theatre programmes and photographs. A divan bed was pushed into a corner. Across it were thrown some sheets and blankets.
‘We’re a bit low on bed linen. You’ll have to make do. We lost a lot when the local laundry got a doodle.’
‘Thank you.’ The sheets were fine linen, apricot-coloured, hemstitched and embroidered. The blankets matched. To Stella, the child of war and shortage, they were luxury.
She looked at the photographs. Rachel Esthart in part after part. What she was seeing was a museum to Rachel Esthart.
‘She was lovely,’ Stella said. ‘Beautiful.’
Florrie’s face seemed to fill out, put on another layer of flesh. So that is what she looks like when she’s pleased, thought Stella.
‘Thank you,’ said a voice from the door, a true actress’s voice getting across every wave of feeling, and what it said to Stella was: I appreciate your compliment but I do not need it. I am above and beyond anything you can give me.
Stella spun round.
Rachel Esthart was as tall as she was and just as slender. Her hair was dressed in soft waves, falling on her cheek in a manner fashionable in the early 1930s. She was wearing a long silk marocain dress of dark blue with a spotted bow. A long jade cigarette-holder rested in her left hand.
She was beautifully made-up, beautifully groomed. About her hung a strong scent of Chanel No. 5. Where did she get it, wondered Stella, to whom French scent was an unobtainable luxury.
Later, she was to learn that the scent and grooming represented a good day, the best, and that there were days when all this elegance became dusty and neglected, and the scent of Chanel was replaced by a sour, sad smell.
She came to know the smell of the bad days. But this was a good day, and it was why she had got in to the house. On a bad no doors would have opened for her.
As she looked at Rachel Esthart she had the sensation of a great many doors opening for her, a vista through which she looked towards success, money and fame. At once she felt tremendously excited. Ambition stirred in her like a live animal. She had always known she was an ambitious actress; now suddenly she saw what she could be. She could learn so much from this woman.
‘Thank you for having me here.’
Rachel Esthart laughed. ‘Well, you’ll pay.’
‘Oh yes … You must tell me how much.’
‘I didn’t mean in money.’
Two pounds a week and your ration book,’ said Florrie swiftly.
Don’t be a slave, Edward had said.
‘I knew you at once. You’re Estella Beaumont’s daughter, aren’t you? Couldn’t be anyone else. She died.’
‘What about your father? A lovely man.’
‘Your mother had marvellous technique but not much heart.’
‘No.’ There seemed nothing else to say. Besides, it was true.
‘Your father was the other way. All emotion but not much technique. Which are you?’
‘I’m nothing much at all at the moment,’ Stella admitted. ‘More my father’s way, I think.’
‘I can do better than that for you. If you’ll learn.’
Stella had a moment of enlightenment. ‘You looked me up.’
‘Yes. In Stage. I always do when the Delaneys get someone new. You got the Ellen Terry medal.’ Stella nodded. It was her first intimation that although Rachel Esthart might be walled up inside Angel House she minded passionately about the theatre still. ‘But it wasn’t until you walked in the door I knew you were your father’s daughter.’
I’ll learn,’ said Stella. My God, she thought. What an offer.
‘I loved your father, you know.’ Well, she was supposed to have loved many men. ‘And I owe him something.’
‘I must pay.’
‘I’ll leave all the financial side to Florrie.’
‘Two pounds a week and your ration book,’ said Florrie at once.
From the door, in her glimmer of pearls and aura of Chanel, Rachel said, her face full of mischief, ‘You’ll eat well here sporadically. Florrie knows all the best black-marketeers. She’s related to most of them – and there’s always the Italian restaurant on the Heath when you’re short here. Florrie’s cousin owns that, too.’ There was malice and amusement in her voice.
She was gone, leaving Stella alone with Florrie.
End of Act One, she thought, curtain. Suspense building up.
‘You’ll eat well here,’ said Mrs Lorimer, serving the young men with Yorkshire pudding and roast beef. ‘I’m on very good terms with my butcher.’ And with the local police, and with the Padovanis of the nearby restaurant. During the war she had insinuated herself into a position of power which she had no intention of relinquishing now peace had come.
‘We passed a theatre on the walk here,’ said John Coffin.
‘Oh, you walked did you? There is an odd cab but you have to book it. I’m a keen theatre-goer. I get my complimentary tickets, you know, and if I can’t go I send a friend. I was asked to give a room to a young lady actress, but it couldn’t be done, the rooms were spoken for you.’
‘Who is it plays the piano?’
That’s Chris Mackenzie: he works in the theatre on the stage management side. An old theatrical family.’
‘And who is it who sings?’
‘Singing, is it?’ A shade passed over Mrs Lorimer’s face. ‘That’ll be old Lady Olivia. Have some more potatoes. I grow my own at the back so they can’t ration me there.’
Nothing more was to be said about Lady Olivia, John Coffin gathered. He wondered what her ladyship had done besides sing drunken, seditious songs. Probably been a terror with her blackout curtains.
His landlady interrupted his reflections. ‘There’s a message from your boss to say he wants to see you two this afternoon. You’ll need to go on the bus. 54s do you.’
The two young men looked at each other.
‘He’s a marvellous man. I used to fire-watch with him. We all took our turn. His wife was killed in that rocket at Woolworths in New Cross. Doing the Christmas shopping, she was. A tragedy, but we’ve all suffered.’
Her eyes fell upon John Coffin who had been blown up by a mortar shell and upon Alex Rowley who had a badly injured hand when a sniper’s bullet smashed across his fingers.
The two young men caught their bus, while Stella walked down the hill to the theatre. It was a Sunday, but a working day for them all.
Some weeks later they had had, all of them, a rough time.
John Coffin and Alex Rowley had discovered that Inspector Tom Banbury, perhaps in reaction to the death of his wife, was not an easy boss.
The current crop of post-war crime in Greenwich, Greenwich Wick and Greenwich Hythe was interesting and varied. Nothing major, but most of it time-consuming and exacting. Tom Banbury did not spare himself nor his juniors.
A boffin from Cambridge had committed suicide by taking an overdose of barbiturate drugs, then lying down under a tree in Greenwich Park as night came on. A park-keeper found him. He had left no suicide note; nor was there any easy answer as to why he had done it. No money worries, nor domestic crisis. His widow said she could not understand it. He had been working during the war near Bletchley but was looking forward to a return to private life. Then a man came down from the Foreign Office and a blanket of silence descended.
A lorry parked outside the Sunshine Café on the Greenwich High Road burst into flames and was burnt out. Investigation revealed that it had been totally empty at the time, its load of food and tins having been unloaded sometime earlier. The lorry-driver and his mate, both of a low IQ, were arrested. They had the money for the sale of the rationed food still on them. The black marketeer was not located. A watch on the Sunshine Café and also on The Padovani Italian restaurant (the same owners) failed to produce results. But the sessions at the Padovanis’ were highly pleasurable.
A woman, a known prostitute, was found shot dead in the caravan she inhabited on a bit of flat land down in Greenwich Hythe. She had been shot about six times, her body torn apart by large calibre bullets. Her death was linked with those of two people whose bodies were discovered a week later in their basement flat in Evelyn Street, Deptford; they had died together, probably about the same time as Connie Shepherd. Their son, recently demobbed, was missing. After a search he was found camping out in Epping Forest, where his only explanation seemed to be that it was his mother’s fault. Connie Shepherd’s error appeared to be that she was ‘too soft’. The ex-soldier had with him a German gun he had picked up in Cologne. Connie Shepherd’s young daughter who had lived with her was missing, and remained missing. The soldier claimed to know nothing about her, and so far no evidence one way or another had been found. It was a nasty case.
Both young men felt and displayed anger in this case as they worked, which was noted by Inspector Banbury. He too felt anger at the disappearance of the child but did not show emotion. The kid was dead, he knew it, everyone knew, but until they found her body, or what was left of it, there was no way forward. Inside, he wanted revenge for her, though.
Across the room on this warm spring day he could hear John Coffin taking a telephone call. ‘Lower Thames Street. That’s down by the docks. Right.’ He had flushed red, then the colour drained away.
There was a strange atmosphere in this police station, somewhat alien to police work and perhaps due to those long-ago scholars, generation upon generation of them. The school had started its life way back in the 1880s as a London School Board Elementary School: Boys on the top, Girls in the middle, and Mixed Infants on the ground. Then in the 1930s the London County Council had raised its status, turning it into a Grammar School. Status but not appearance. The architect employed by the old London authorities had a strong house style, a kind of modified Venetian Gothic, so that one red-brick London school closely resembled another. Banbury had gone to such a one himself. So had Connie Shepherd, so had her child. It made a link.
Coffin came straight across. ‘A workman digging on a site in Lower Thames Street found a foot wrapped in newspaper.’
The two men looked at each other. Alex had gone white.
Coffin said, ‘The foreman said a child’s foot.’
‘Get across. Both of you. I’ll follow.’
There was no denying that Alex Rowley had a way of showing awkward emotion. Banbury felt he needed a safety-valve. Marriage might provide it. He seemed the sort that might marry young.
He had seen them both with Stella Pinero in the Padovanis’ restaurant. Separately. Not together.
The foot found on the waste ground of Lower Thames Street was that of a child. It was probably that of Sybil Shepherd, but there was no proof. The foot had been severed at the ankle. The search continued. Nothing more was found on that site.
Shortages of all kinds impeded quick work. Severely rationed petrol meant that most leg-work was literally done on the feet. Lack of telephone lines cut into police communications, creating delays and frustrations.
Space was one of the shortages at Greenwich Wick police station. Privacy was at a premium. From where he worked in his own crowded corner, John Coffin could see both his boss, Tom Banbury and Alex. Likewise they could see him.
But at least he had a window. From his window he could see German POWs clearing the ground where a colony of new houses was going to be planted. There could be a bit of Sybil Shepherd there. Who knew?
He walked over it every day on his way to eat lunch at the Trafalgar Arms public house. He always looked now for evidence of unusual disturbance. Observation counted for so much in detective work. He was exploiting his sharpness of vision.
But it hadn’t helped so far with the Shepherd child. This search looked like their biggest problem, a harrowing and horrible one. He didn’t see it as more than that then.
He walked across the cleared ground on the way home.
His mind was burdened like a pack-horse with bundles of problems picked up in the day, a tightly packed box of private concerns carried with him all the time, and the odd perplexity that was a weight for a while, then put down and of no importance.
Today he was asking himself if the foot was that of the missing child or, as some thought, a left-over from the Blitz which had defied decay? The newspaper ought to give some help there. Then, if the foot did not belong to the Shepherd child, ought they not to be searching for the girl as alive? Could he trust his boss’s judgement on this? Could he trust his boss?
As he walked, his mind performed the throwing away act that lightened his burden every night. First out went the worry of his boss: probably nothing there; next went Alex: let that lad get on with his own troubles. Professional problems did not go away, but were deposited more comfortably about his person so he could think about himself.
He thought: Although I don’t like living at Mrs Lorimer’s and shall get out of it as soon as I can, we are an interesting lot. There’s Lady Olivia for one. Then there’s Chris Mackenzie always composing on the piano, and when he’s not doing that he spends his spare time carving model toys – aeroplanes and motor-cars. These he sells. Gets a good price, he says. Sociable chap. Gave us a drink on our first night here from some Padovani wine, and didn’t complain when a glass got spilt. Said he always spilt a glass himself on principle.
Mrs Lorimer complained, though, next day and said Alex had spilt some as well. He denied it, but I know he had because it was all over the Penguin I’d lent him.
He walked on.
He had plenty to think about. When he got home that night, just over one month since he had arrived in Greenwich, he began to write an aide-mémoire. A misnomer to call it a diary.
He dated it carefully: April 29, 1946.
And then at once burst into a flow of words about his own personal and private problem.
What Aunt Gert told me: that in August 1922, she thinks the third day of the month, a child was born to Julia Fairbain who later became Julia Coffin, my mother. This child was put out to adoption within the next two months. And Gert said she did not know the sex of the child, nor who adopted it. Her sister told her nothing about it, except that the event had taken place. In 1943 just before she died she told Gertie that the child was still alive and had been in touch with her. She wanted the two of us to get to know each other.
Aunt Gert kept quiet about all this because she didn’t see what I could do. Also, I was in Germany, then in hospital. When she heard I was going to be a detective, she thought I ought to know.
He raised his head from his notebook; he had chosen a red one as being strong and positive. These qualities might rub off on him. Then he wrote:
Aunty is still alive and bearing down on me to come up with an answer.
Query? Aunt Gert is becoming senile. Did she invent the whole story?
If she did not invent it, then can I rely on the details?
If she is passing on those details accurately, then did my mother tell the truth?
He raised his head again. One thing was sure: she had not told much of a story.
Pinned in the back of the red notebook were the only pieces of documentation that his aunt and mother had produced.
A picture-card, addressed to his mother, postmarked, Charlton S.E. And dated October 1940. It said:
Got home safely, so don’t worry. The Blitz won’t get me. I’ll keep in touch.
The picture on the card was of a church and a road.
There was also a single sheet of newspaper. The Kentish Mercury for November 1941. It carried various stories. Also a column of births, deaths and marriages.
That was all he had, and all he would ever have to help him find his unidentified sibling. If he had one.
I have been to the Kentish Mercury [he noted in his aide mémoire], and read the whole of that week’s papers through. I got no help.
I have walked around Charlton and I cannot identify the church or the road.
Think of it as your little hobby, he told himself, when you’re not looking for the murderers of prostitutes, and missing children. Or falling in love with girls like Stella Pinero.
Stella was not writing an aide-mémoire, but she had one great friend to whom she was writing a letter.
Thanks for your letter. Funny to think of you in Stratford. You seem to be getting some marvellous parts. Lucky of you to get your teeth into Ophelia. No one’s offered me Ophelia here, but I’m not doing so badly. What do you say to Major Barbara, Trelawney of the Wells, and Amanda in Private Lives? And I stand a good chance of being Prince Charming in the pantomime at Christmas, so beat that. Also, there’s something more in the offing but that’s still a secret and I mustn’t say.
The Delaneys are super, marvellous management. They’ve got some tremendously good people here. No one I’ve worked with before but names. Edward Kelly, for one. I mean, he really can act. I’m learning a lot.
There’s another bonus too. Where I live. Angel House belongs to Rachel Esthart. Yes. That surprises you, I bet? Remember how we used to try to be like her. Now I don’t have to try. I feel as though I practically am her, I see so much of her, and she’s teaching me. Proper lessons. We go through my parts. She’s got a room rigged up for a theatre. I haven’t told the Delaneys, but I think they know.
Here the writer showed a hint of nervousness. Rachel Esthart had so powerful a personality. I must struggle to be myself as well as her, she thought before going on:
There’s a funny thing about her. She never goes out. Well, hardly ever. I have heard tales that she sometimes hires a car and drives to a first night where she sits in the back of the box wearing white gloves and clapping. Or not clapping if she’s displeased. Then she has supper at the Savoy and drives back.
So she’s not quite a recluse. The house was a shock at first, but the bit we live in is all right. The rest, cobwebs, dear, and dust. Apparently the Miss Havisham thing goes back to when she lost her son. It’s a form of agoraphobia, I suppose. It’s what Miss Havisham could have had, if you think about it.
But there’s something even odder. She drinks a bit. And one night she let out that she doesn’t believe her son is dead. Just gone. One day he might come back. And these last few days she’s acted as if she’d had messages from Heaven that he’s on the way. Oh, poor lady. Most of the time she’s so sane, too. I suppose it’s the gin talking. We all have our fantasies.
I won’t tell you mine, but I will say there are some gorgeous men here. Two policemen (yes!). One so fair, one so dark. And there’s Eddie Kelly. And a pretty good musician who’s our stage manager.
I think I’ve clicked. It might even be the real thing. There’s something very sexy about a slight maiming, isn’t there? The Byron thing. He’s very attractive, rather brutal, I suspect.
Stella finished her letter and posted it.
That afternoon she got the call from John Coffin which obliged her to go to the police station and collect Rachel Esthart and take her back to Angel House on the bus. A journey not without difficulty as Rachel was withdrawn and hostile. The sympathetic union between them was now so strong that Stella felt sick, angry, and yet frightened at the same time and knew this was how Rachel felt.
Florrie met them at the door, and Stella handed her silent charge over.
‘Come on, Mrs Esthart, love. What happened?’ she said to Stella.
Stella told her side of the story.
‘Come on, love,’ said Florrie to her mistress. ‘What’s behind it? I knew something was up, keeping it to yourself, weren’t you? Tell old Florrie.’
For answer Rachel produced a card. It was a plain white correspondence card with a gold deckled edge, a slight pink shadow, hardly a stain, marked one edge. It said:
I am sending a present to my mother. It will arrive on May 1st from my mother’s son.
‘Yesterday was May 1st,’ said Rachel. ‘It’s late.’
She was like a child whose birthday had been overlooked, but at least she was talking.
Florrie said defensively, ‘I blame the drugs they give her. She’ll be herself when they wear off.’
‘I am myself.’
‘I think that card is wicked. A cruel joke.’
With the bleakness of returning sanity, Rachel said: ‘Either the card is honest, and my son is around. Or somebody hates me.’
Next day the first body arrived, afloat in the river, but late for its appointment. It had got caught in the chains attached to a string of barges. This had delayed its transit up river. Otherwise the tide would have deposited it sooner.
Attached to the body in a pocket, soaked but legible, was a white correspondence card. It said:
A present for my mother.
The first body, that of a young woman, was found soon after dawn by a lighterman going to work his barges. The tidal river has its own pattern and sets its own working hours, so he was early to work. The tide rose about five o’clock, but it was full summer and a fine day so he had light enough to see what was there at the wharf on Fidder’s Reach.
When he had taken it in, Will Summers, lighterman and waterman of the river for thirty-odd years, not without experience of dead bodies, was sorry that he had seen so clearly. I’m never going to forget that sight, he told himself, I shall never forget that girl, poor kid. She’s going to come back every so often and be like a member of the family.
He knew it was a girl from the clothes, otherwise he might have been confused, for the face had been terribly beaten by the chains in which she had become entangled, and a piece of rope had lashed her legs, tearing at them. There were no fish much in the river, but there were eels and some of them must have found her. Or perhaps a river rat, venturing out at night to eat. The pathologists would identify the likely causes of the marks.
She was wearing a pretty flowered cotton dress. Or at least, it had been pretty once, brightly coloured in red and blue, but it was stained and dirty now. Her shoes had gone, but a necklace of white beads remained around her throat. Will Summers took that fact in because of all the things about her only the white, china beads remained unspoilt. They gleamed in the water. They were what he had first seen and reached out a hand to touch.
The water moved darkly around the body, unpleasantly thick and brown. The barges had been towed along late yesterday and lined up in a string to be unloaded on Ellers Wharf. At some point they had found the body (or it had found them) and brought it along with them.
‘I never saw that happen before,’ said Will Summers to himself. ‘First time I ever saw that. But anything’s possible in the river.’ The river was a living entity to him, a character fully alive and operational in his working life. He respected it and feared it. Never more so than now. Then he saw how it happened with the girl. It was her hair, her lovely long and beautiful fair hair, that had become entangled in the chains. She would have to be cut free.
He made for the telephone to call the police. On the wharf was a wooden shed which served as an office, the telephone was in there. His foreman was sitting down going through some papers and drinking a mug of tea. He looked up in query.
‘I’ve got a deader.’ He dialled 999. ‘And I don’t like it, Ted, I don’t like it.’
‘They’re none of them good.’
‘You haven’t seen this one …’ His hand was trembling so much that the telephone shook. ‘I can’t get this bloody number.’
Ted took the telephone from him. ‘Here, let me.’ He put his mouth to the instrument and shouted. ‘Police.’
After he had got his message across he went outside to take a look for himself. Soon he came back and went across to a cupboard on the wall which he unlocked, taking out a bottle of colourless liquid to pour good helpings into two mugs. ‘Here’s yours, Will. Drink up.’ It was rum, transparent before the burnt sugar was put in to colour it, and immensely strong. Never ask where it came from. ‘It’s my silver wedding anniversary today. Nice way to bring it in … Not that it’s not better in some respects than the day itself. I was out of a job and on casuals. No way to start a married life. At least this war’s put us to rights there, Will. Never be out of a job now.’
‘No.’ Will drank up. Both men had seen the river in the Depression when men crowded at the dock gates to be picked out one by one for casual work, favoured men first. The war, in a way, had been a godsend. ‘Not in the docks, any road.’
‘Not anywhere. It’s different now. Got a welfare state now, you know. This lot know what they’re doing.’
‘They better.’ He took a deep drink. ‘You always were an optimist.’
The two men finished their drinks. ‘So what about the one outside?’ asked Ted.
‘Murder. She’s been murdered, that one.’
The news about the body was spread about the area with speed, reaching several centres where gossip was received and disseminated almost before the police knew themselves what had turned up there on the riverside. They were slow to react at first, thinking it just another suicide. There had been two already that year. The ending of the war had not brought peace to everyone. The last floater had been a young girl who had gone in with her lover, a coloured serviceman. He had survived, she had not. They were all the same, but all different, with the little eccentricities of dying that make each death unique. The hand grasping a piece of wood that it had clutched at as it went down, the body making its own bid for life, defying the mind; the body unclothed because death comes easier that way; the body in the top coat because the water is cold; they got them all. The murdered do not have so much choice, they are thrust willy-nilly into their departure with all the apparatus of their living about them. They cannot choose whether they die with their return train ticket to Waterloo in their pocket or a ham sandwich still stuck in their teeth. This too the police team had met recently. Connie Shepherd had been eating ham and the threads were still in her molars.
All those dead by drowning show the same set of postmortem signs, this is where they are the same. But this is only true when the bodies are recovered from the water soon after death, for when putrefaction comes on then these signs are obliterated. Most bodies from the Thames were recovered soon. Such bodies most often displayed a froth of fine bubbles at the nostrils. If wiped away these bubbles reappear, pushed out from the sodden lungs.
The body newly arrived showed no such signs and Will Summers knew it as well as anyone. It was probably from him that the first stories came. He had an Irish mother and could tell a tale and usually did. Ginger McCaffey was a mate of his and distributed the news as well as the milk. He was certainly the agent by which the Delaneys and Stella Pinero and the rest heard the news at the Theatre Royal. Joan told the cast as she handed round mugs of coffee. They were doing J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls and it seemed appropriate. Up at Angel House they were slower to hear the news because they were not on Ginger’s round, but Florrie heard when she called on her cousins the Padovanis for her meat. They supplied her with meat, butter, bacon and all interesting information. In their business you got to know a lot, and although taciturn Northern Italians, they were willing to talk to Florrie who was kin. Her mother had been English but they were willing to overlook that since Florrie was so totally in looks and spirit one of them. Only in her taste did she display her English mother; she rarely drank coffee but consumed quantities of sweet dark tea. The Padovanis called her their ‘English cousin’ and laughed at her when she was not there. But they respected her for living at Angel House, for her loyalty to Rachel Esthart, and for lending out money at interest, a good business woman.
They told her about the body and Florrie told Rachel Esthart. She considered suppressing the news but decided, after thought, that she’d better say. She had a presentiment that it would be wise. Or so she claimed afterwards.
The other great centre for the spread of news was the local library where Florrie went almost daily to change books for Rachel (she was at the moment reading Miss Heyer’s Faro’s Child and wondering if she should buy the film rights) and where the cast of the Theatre Royal went daily to read the newspapers which they could not afford to buy, so they said, and to steal the one copy of Vogue, which was rationed, if they could manage it. Someone usually could. At the end of the month they put it back, much battered, to the very great fury of the librarian. But in the library everything was told, and all items of news retailed like a good serial. As quite a lot of people changed their library books every day, including Will’s wife and Ginger’s mother, items of interest could be exchanged, added to and occasionally denied.
Through these channels the news about the dead body spread rapidly with comment added. Very soon the murderer knew what his audience thought of him. He began to see his face reflected in the public mirror. This greatly interested him.
The news was received by different people in different ways. The Padovanis had taken a frank and cheerful interest in the news, while at the library the elderly librarian had said girls should look after themselves better. She returned to her Elizabeth Goudge.
Rachel Esthart took the news calmly. She was in one of her downbeat moods after the excitement of the last few days. If she still believed her son was close at hand, she seemed to care much less. Perhaps she no longer believed he was alive.
She had, of course, been the victim of a filthy joke, and she had the card propped up on her desk to prove it, but she no longer seemed very interested, and if she was not, who else was left to mind?
Deep inside her own personal castle, Rachel Esthart heard about the dead girl with distant politeness. Florrie was relieved; her premonitions of trouble were wrong. She was very glad not to have precognition or telepathy or whatever. Her grandmother had been a witch; or so her mother (who had not liked her mother-in-law) had always alleged.
There was always the chance these powers had descended to her. In an Anglo-Saxon environment they would not be a comfortable attribute. But it would certainly show Ma Padovani.
So she told Rachel, who listened carefully. ‘Poor girl,’ she said sadly. ‘I hate to hear of young creatures dying. There’s been too much of that already in the war.’
Rachel had never closed her mind to the war, she had listened to all Churchill’s broadcasts. The progress of the war in North Africa and Italy, and then in France and Germany had been followed closely on war maps. She identified herself with the army as if she was a young soldier.
‘Florrie,’ she said suddenly, ‘I’m a bit scared. I feel death’s getting too close. Will it be my turn next? Do you think I’m going to die?’
‘No, love, no,’ said Florrie reassuringly. ‘When you are going to die, you don’t know. It’s unexpected.’ She wasn’t sure if this was true, but it was something to say.
‘Do you think it’s the war that produces a particular kind of murder – all those young men, seeing death, such violent and terrible deaths? No knowing what it might do to the mind. Not if they’re normal. But who is normal? And could you ever be normal again if you’d been blown up? Or blown a man up with a grenade?’ Her eyes wandered to the card promising her a present from her son. She still had it on her desk.
‘You ought to throw that away.’ Florrie was cross. ‘It’s rubbish.’
‘Is there any gin left?’
‘Right out.’ Florrie was regretful on her own account. ‘You finished it yesterday.’
Rachel sat for a moment in silence, then she said: ‘I won’t drink any more. That’s it. Over.’
One brick in the wall she had built around herself was gone.
Stella heard the news as she sat doing her face in her dressing-room. There was a brick out of her wall too, but in her case it was a real one. A bomb blast had weakened an area of brick on the back wall of the dressing-room, and one brick had become dislodged so that a cold breeze played around her ankles. Someone had stuffed the hole full of newspaper but it did not suffice to keep out the air of that chill summer. She kicked at the paper with her foot; her hand decorating an eye with mascara slipped and marred her perfect cheek – the make-up there was just right, a delicate apricot. She swore softly. At such times she resembled a little cat.
She was considering what she had heard. Joan and Albie had come straight out with the news and told everyone. It might affect audiences; it might affect everyone. One of the company had remarked that the dead girl reminded him of ‘l’inconnue de la Seine’.
Stella had experienced a little shiver of alarm. She had had a brush with violence herself recently and knew how easily it could come about. It might even be one’s own fault. And now this poor girl.
Edward poked his head round the door. ‘Hello, poppet, a call for you. Albie wants you in the office.’
The war had cast a shadow over Stella’s youth and growing up. This separated her from someone like Edward Kelly who had been adult in a world where the lights had blazed all night with no blackout and no bombs. His young world had had no rationing and no clothes coupons. A leading lady in a smart West End production expected to have her clothes ordered from Molyneux and her hats from Reboux. It was a glittering stage which Stella had not known. On Edward Kelly’s nineteenth birthday, he had been appearing with Noel Coward and Noel had sent him round a small bottle of champagne, then invited him back to Gerald Road. On Stella’s nineteenth birthday she had been crouching in a cellar in the Theatre Royal, Bath, while German bombs fell around them, one of the so-called Baedeker raids.
Edward was a creature from a different world, hence the glamour he had for her, but she was really closer in age and spirit to the two young policemen and Chris Mackenzie, the stage manager and musician.
‘What?’ She got up hurriedly. ‘Coming.’ Joan and Albie had no glamour (this was not their style) but they were management and paid the wages.
She was on her way, dressing-gown flying. As she went past, he brushed a kiss on her cheek.
‘I love you, poppet, know that?’
‘Not you, Eddie.’ The light turn-away was always best with Eddie.
He called after her. ‘What’s that face you were putting on? What face?’
‘Candida,’ she called back. ‘For Candida.’ It was to be her next big part, she had just had the ingénue part in An Inspector Calls.
‘Too hearty by half. Candida is pale,’ he shouted – Edward was to play her clergyman husband. Albie, surprisingly, would be the poet: he could act thirty years younger than he was.
In the office, Joan and Albie were in consultation with Chris Mackenzie.
It was Chris who had said that the finding of the body reminded him of ‘l’inconnue de la Seine’, the famous nineteenth-century girl found floating and immortalized in sculpture. He said things like that quite often and they were never a joke. He was a disconcerting young man.
Now they wanted to discuss with her a technicality about Candida’s entrance; there were difficulties.
Stella was cooperative. Anything they said. But all the time she was thinking of what Chris had said about the dead girl: it had sounded both calm and cruel. She did not like it that Chris could be like that.
She wondered what it would feel like living in Angel House with such news under her belt.
Well, at least, she knew some policemen. And the policemen knew her.
John Coffin and Alex Rowley went with Inspector Banbury to the scene of the discovery. The body had been removed from the water by then and placed on the riverside. For the moment it was covered with a blanket.
Inspector Banbury was in charge, the young men were present in a strictly subordinate capacity. They were there to assist and assist only, their sphere of action limited. In a way this was a help, or so John Coffin found. It freed the mind. He was able to look around and take it all in as a detached observer. Some of the things he saw he might not necessarily mention. Others he might review in his mind, then hand over to Tom Banbury. When the shell blew him up, then buried him, it took something away, an outer carapace, and gave him a clarity of vision. Life would replace the shell but meanwhile he saw all things new.
At the moment he was testing out Tom Banbury to find out how much of his individual vision he could hand over without seeming odd. Because the things he saw were sometimes ludicrously simple, yet might be important.
Such as the fact that although the girl had all her fingernails neatly trimmed, one nail and that of a little finger was long.
Then again, he saw that where the water had drained away from the body it had run into a pool that was half moon-shaped. That couldn’t possibly be important or relevant, but it was certainly very striking. Stretched out like that, she reminded him of a picture seen in a history book of a sacrificial victim of the Aztecs with a shaped indentation at the feet where the blood drained, or libations were poured.
He looked up and thought that Alex had caught the reflection of his thoughts because he too looked up, shook his head and frowned. Coffin wondered if he would say something memorable or profound to round off the moment, but he didn’t do so. All he said was:
‘Cold down here. It’s the wind off the river. Stinks a bit, too.’
There was a smell, sour and succulent, floating off the water now stirred by the sharp breeze. The same smell, with some addition of its own, came up from the dead body. He wondered if dead women smelt the same as dead men, there must be a sex difference, you’d think.
One thing was very clear as John Coffin looked down at the dead girl and that was that she had not died easily. In his life had had seen plenty of deaths, but they had mostly come very quickly so that it was over and done with before the mind took note. This girl looked as though she had had time to think about it and to know what was coming. Pain, too. Sharp, tearing pain and terror. A blow had fixed a mark down the side of her cheek and split her lip: she had felt that. There was another bruise on her chin. Her hands were swollen and water-sodden, washerwoman’s hands, but they had scratches and it looked as though she might have fought back. Her neck was bruised. A strangling?
Her killer might be marked. He registered that fact.
But the main area of wounds was on the trunk. There were tears in the pretty summer dress where a knife had gone through, and large bloodstains about each hole. He could see five holes. He counted. There might be more elsewhere that he couldn’t see. A white woolly cardigan, equally stained, had been buttoned across her dress.
Put on after the killing, he thought.
Banbury came across from the foreman’s office like a controlled whirlwind, the gentle, concise way of speaking belying the activity he generated, and Coffin told him what he thought.
‘Been buttoned back on afterwards.’
‘Don’t jump to conclusions. I’ve known the lab boys upset a few ideas of mine. Let them have a look and tell us what’s what and then we start thinking.’
In the month in which he had worked with Tom Banbury he had learnt that his boss was good-tempered and hard-working, but very little else besides. He didn’t even know what football team he supported or what beer he drank. If he had a secret life even that was a secret. It was a mistake to be so closed up, and for a policeman it was a downright disadvantage. You ought to appear to be open, even if you were not.
John Coffin assessed Tom’s comment as being in line with what he already made of his chief. A good man but limited.
So he got on with his own thoughts in the way he wanted.
He could see where a stain was partly covered by the white jersey and had absorbed some blood from it. Put on afterwards, he decided. And not just for fun. Getting her into that, a dead weight, would not come easy. But he did it.
That was all they knew then. Later they were to discover the reason, but Banbury was never to say anything.
‘There is something about the clothes that I will comment on,’ said Tom Banbury. ‘They look to me the clothes of a quiet, respectable girl. She wasn’t one of Connie Shepherd’s sort.’
The bare legs stretching before them had been pretty, sun-tanned legs, the feet well groomed with neat toenails. ‘She wasn’t flashy.’
‘Wonder who she is?’
Tom Banbury shook his head and shrugged. ‘There might be a name on her clothes. But I doubt it.’
Alex came back from where he had been talking to a uniformed constable. ‘Surgeon’s just arriving, sir.’
‘Know who she is, Alex?’ said Banbury. ‘Any idea? Ever seen her before?’
An unknown girl dragged out of the Thames: that would be the newspaper headlines. It would make the evening paper. There was a stringer from the Star there already, with a young woman from the Kentish Mercury.
‘Somebody knows her.’
‘And we’ve got to find that somebody.’ Banbury turned away to meet the police surgeon. ‘That’s how you do it, lad.’ He nodded across to where the press stood, the first two had now been joined by another man. ‘You can tell that lot there if they hang about there will be a description for them to print. They can help us get a name for her with any luck. As I said: somebody knows her, and somebody will be missing her.’
As John Coffin obeyed orders and walked across to the press, taking in that the girl from the Mercury had red hair and pretty ankles, he noticed an arrival.
A smart black car drew up to the kerb from which stepped, accompanied by what ought to have been a flourish of trumpets and felt as if it had been, a burly well-dressed man. The man gave him a quick, perceptive look and passed on, coat flying. Coffin had the same feeling he’d had when he’d encountered a General on the field of batttle. It was a sparkling entrance.
Coffin knew his name but not his face. Chief Superintendent Dander, the Supremo of the CID in this South London police district, the nearest thing to God in Coffin’s professional life, had arrived.
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