Maisie Dobbs shuffled the papers on her desk into a neat pile and placed them in a plain manila folder. She took up green marble-patterned W.H. Smith fountain pen and inscribed the cover with the name of her new clients: Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Johnson, who were concerned that their son’s fiancée might have misled them regarding her past. It was the sort of case that was easily attended to, that would provide a useful reference, and that could be closed with presentation of a timely report and accompanying account for her services. But for Maisie the case notes would not be filed away until those whose lives were touched by her investigation had reached a certain peace with her findings, with themselves, and with one another—as far as that might be possible. As she wrote, a tendril of jet black hair tumbled down into her eyes. Sighing, she quickly pushed it back into the chignon at the nape of her neck. Suddenly, Maisie set her pen on the blotting pad, pulled the troublesome wisp of hair free so that it hung down again, and walked to the large mirror hanging on the wall above the fireplace. She unpinned her long hair and tucked it inside the collar of her white silk blouse, pulling out just an inch or so around her chin-line. Would shorter hair suit her?
“Perhaps Lady Rowan is right,” said Maisie to her reflection in the mirror. “Perhaps it would look better in a bob.”
She turned from side to side several times, and lifted her hair just slightly. Shorter hair might save a few minutes of precious time each morning, and it would no longer come free of the chignon and fall into her eyes. But one thing held her back. She lifted her hair and turned her head. Was the scar visible? Would shorter hair fall in such a way as to reveal the purple weal that etched a line from her neck into the sensitive flesh of her scalp? If her hair were cut, would she lean forward over her notes one day and unwittingly allow a client to see the damage inflicted by the German shell that had ripped into the casualty clearing station where she was working, in France, in 1917?
Looking at the room reflected in the mirror, Maisie considered how far she had come—not only from the dark dingy office in Warren Street that was all she had been able to afford just over a year ago, but from that first meeting with Maurice Blanche, her mentor and teacher, when she had been a maid in the household of Lord Julian Compton and his wife, Lady Rowan. It was Maurice and Lady Rowan who had noted Maisie’s intellect and ensured that she had every opportunity to pursue her hunger for education. They had made it possible for the former tweeny maid to gain admission to Girton College, Cambridge.
Maisie quickly pulled her hair into a neat chignon again, and as she pinned the twist into place, she glanced out of the floor-to-ceiling window that overlooked Fitzroy Square. Her assistant, Billy Beale, had just turned in to the square and was crossing the rain-damp gray flagstones toward the office. Her scar began to throb. As she watched Billy, Maisie began to assume his posture. She moved toward the window with shoulders dropped, hands thrust into imaginary pockets, and her gait mimicking the awkwardness caused by Billy’s still-troublesome war wounds. Her disposition began to change, and she realized that the occasional malaise she had sensed several weeks ago was now a constant in Billy’s life.
As she looked down at him from what had once been the drawing room window of the Georgian building, he stretched the cuff of his overcoat over the palm of his hand and polished the brass nameplate informing visitors that the office of M. Dobbs, Psychologist and Investigator, was situated within. Satisfied, Billy straightened, drew back his shoulders, stretched his spine, ran his fingers through his tousled shock of wheaten hair, and took out his key to the main door. Maisie watched as he corrected his posture. You can’t fool me, Billy Beale, she said to herself. The front door closed with a heavy thud, and the stairs creaked as Billy ascended to the office.
“Morning, Miss. I picked up the records you wanted.” Billy placed a plain brown envelope on Maisie’s desk. “Oh, and another thing, Miss, I bought a Daily Express for you to ’ave a butcher’s ’ook at.” He took a newspaper from the inside pocket of his overcoat. “That woman what was found murdered in ’er own ’ome a week or two ago down in Surrey—you remember, in Coulsden—well, there’s more details ’ere, of who she was, and the state she was in when she was found.”
“Thank you, Billy,” said Maisie, taking the newspaper.
“She was only your age, Miss. Terrible, innit?”
“It certainly is.”
“I wonder if our friend . . . well, your friend, really—Detective Inspector Stratton—is involved?”
“Most likely. Since the murder took place outside London, it’s a Murder Squad case.”
Billy looked thoughtful. “Fancy ’avin’ to say you work for the Murder Squad, eh, Miss? Don’t exactly warm folk to you, does it?”
Maisie scanned the article quickly. “Oh, that’s a newspaper invention to sell more papers. I think they started to use it when the Crippen case became big news. It used to be called the Reserve Squad, but that didn’t sound ominous enough. And Criminal Investigation Department is a bit of a mouthful.” Maisie looked up at Billy, “And by the way, Billy, what do you mean by my ‘friend,’ eh?”
“Aw, nuffin’ really, Miss. It’s just that—”
Billy was interrupted by the ringing of the black telephone on Maisie’s desk. He raised his eyebrows and reached for the receiver.
“Fitzroy five six double 0. Good afternoon, Detective Inspector Stratton. Yes, she’s ’ere. I’ll put her on.” He smiled broadly, covering the receiver with his palm as Maisie, blushing slightly, held out her hand to take it. “Now, Miss, what was it that Doctor Blanche used to say about coincidence being a—what was it? Oh yes, a messenger of truth?”
“That’s enough, Billy.” Maisie took the receiver and waved him away. “Inspector Stratton, how very nice to hear from you. I expect you’re busy with the murder case in Coulsden.”
“And how did you know that, Miss Dobbs? No, don’t tell me. It’s probably best that I don’t know.”
Maisie laughed. “To what do I owe this call, Inspector?”
“Purely social, Miss Dobbs. I thought I’d ask if you might care to dine with me.”
Maisie hesitated, tapped the desk with her pen, and then replied,
“Thank you for the invitation, Inspector Stratton. It really is most kind
of you . . . but perhaps we can lunch together instead.”
There was a pause. “Certainly, Miss Dobbs. Will you be free on Friday?”
“Yes, Friday would be excellent.”
“Good. I’ll meet you at your office at noon, and we can go from there to Bertorelli’s.”
Maisie hesitated. “May I meet you at Bertorelli’s? At noon?”
Again the line was quiet. Why does this have to be so difficult? Maisie thought.
“Of course. Friday, noon at Bertorelli’s.”
“I’ll see you then. Good-bye.” She replaced the receiver thoughtfully.
“Aye-oop, ’ere’s a nice cuppa for you, Miss.” Billy placed the tea tray on his desk, poured milk and tea into a large enamel mug for Maisie, and placed it in front of her.
“Don’t mind me askin’, Miss—and I know it ain’t none of my business, like—but why don’t you take ’im up on the offer of a dinner? I mean, gettin’ the odd dinner fer nuffin’ ain’t such a bad thing.”
“Lunch and dinner are two entirely different things, and going out for luncheon with a gentleman is definitely not the same as going out to dine in the evening.”
“You get more grub at dinner, for a start—”
Billy was interrupted by the doorbell. As he moved to the window
to see who might be calling, Maisie noticed him rub his thigh and
wince. The war wound, suffered almost thirteen years before, during
the Battle of Messines in 1917, was nipping at him again. Billy left to
answer the doorbell, and as he did so, Maisie heard him negotiate the
stairs with difficulty as he descended to the front door.
“Message for M. Dobbs. Urgent. Sign ’ere, please.”
“Thanks, mate.” As Billy signed for the envelope he reached into his pocket for some change to hand the messenger. He closed the door and sighed before mounting the stairs again. As he returned to the office he held out the envelope to Maisie.
“That leg giving you trouble?” she asked.
“Just a bit more than usual. Mind you, I’m not as young as I was.”
“Have you been back to the doctor?”
“Not lately. There ain’t much they can do, is there? I’m a lucky fella—got a nice job when there’s ’undreds and ’undreds of blokes linin’
up fer work. Can’t be feelin’ sorry for meself, can I?”
“We’re fortunate, Billy. There seems to be more business for us, what with people going missing after losing all their money, and others getting up to no good at all.” She turned the envelope in her hands. “Well, well, well . . .”
“What is it, Miss?”
“Did you notice the return address on the envelope? This letter’s from Joseph Waite.”
“You mean the Joseph Waite? Moneybags Joseph Waite? The one they call the Banker’s Butcher?”
“He’s requested that I come to his residence—‘soonest,’ he says—to receive instructions for an investigation.”
“I suppose ’e’s used to orderin’ folk around and getting ’is own way—” Billy was interrupted once more by the ringing telephone. “Gawd, Miss, there goes the dog-and-bone again!”
Maisie reached for the receiver.
“Fitzroy five six double 0.”
“May I speak to Miss Maisie Dobbs, please?”
“Speaking. How may I help you?”
“This is Miss Arthur, secretary to Joseph Waite. Mr. Waite is expecting you.”
“Good morning, Miss Arthur. I have only just received his letter via personal messenger.”
“Good. Can you come today at three? Mr. Waite will see you then, for half an hour.”
The woman’s voice trembled slightly. Was Miss Arthur so much in awe of her employer?
“Right you are, Miss Arthur. My assistant and I will arrive at three. Now, may I have directions?”
“Yes, the address is as follows: Do you know Dulwich?”
“Ready when you are, Miss.”
Maisie looked at the silver nurse’s watch pinned to her jacket as if it were a brooch. The watch had been a gift from Lady Rowan when Maisie took leave from Girton College and became a VAD at the London Hospital, a member of the wartime Voluntary Aid Detachment of nursing staff during the Great War. It had kept perfect time since the very first moment she pinned it to her uniform, serving her well while she tended injured men at a casualty clearing station in France, and again when she nursed shell-shocked patients upon her return. And since completing her studies at Girton the watch had been synchronized many times with the pocket watch belonging to Maurice Blanche, when she worked as his assistant. It would serve her for a few more years yet.
“Just time to complete one more small task, Billy; then we’ll be on our way. It’s the first week of the month, and I have some accounts to do.”
Maisie took a key from her purse, opened the middle drawer on the right-hand side of her large desk, and selected one small ledger from the six bound notebooks in the drawer. The ledger was labeled motor car.
Maisie had been given use of the smart MG 14/40 sports roadster belonging to Lady Rowan the year before. Recurring hip pain suffered as the result of a hunting accident rendered driving difficult for Lady Rowan, and she insisted that Maisie borrow the motor car whenever she wanted. After using the vehicle constantly for some months, Maisie had offered to purchase the MG. Lady Rowan teased that it must have been the only transaction involving a motor car in which the buyer insisted upon paying more than the owner had stipulated. A small percentage for interest had been added at Maisie’s insistence. Taking up her pen, Maisie pulled her checkbook from the same drawer and wrote a check, payable to Lady Rowan Compton. The amount paid was entered in a ledger column and the new balance owed underlined in red.
“Right then, Billy, just about done. All secure?”
“Yes, Miss. Case maps are in my desk, and locked. Card file is locked. Tea is locked—”
“Just pullin’ yer leg, Miss!” Billy opened the door for Maisie, and they left the office, making sure that the door was locked behind them.
Maisie looked up at the leaden sky. “Looks like rain again, doesn’t it?”
“It does at that. Better get on our way and ’ope it blows over.”
The motor car was parked at the edge of Fitzroy Street, its shining paintwork a splash of claret against the gray April afternoon.
Billy held the door for her, then lifted the bonnet to turn on the fuel pump, closing it again with a clatter that made Maisie wince. As he leaned over the engine, Maisie observed the gray smudges below his eyes. Banter was Billy’s way of denying pain. He gave the thumbs-up sign, and Maisie set the ignition, throttle, and choke before pressing the starter button on the floor of the motor car. The engine burst into life. He opened the passenger door and took his seat beside her.
“Off we go, then. Sure of your way?”
“Yes, I know Dulwich. The journey shouldn’t take more than an hour, depending upon the traffic.” Maisie slipped the MG into gear and eased out into Warren Street.
“Let’s just go over what we already know about Waite. That Maurice had file cards on him is intriguing in itself.”
“Well, according to this first card, Dr. Blanche went to ’im askin’ for money for a clinic. What’s that about?” Billy glanced at Maisie, then looked ahead at the road. “It’s starting to come down.”
“I know. London weather, so fabulously predictable you never know what might happen,” observed Maisie before answering Billy’s question. “Maurice was a doctor, Billy; you know that. Before he specialized in medical jurisprudence, his patients had a bit more life in them.”
“I should ’ope so.”
“Anyway, years ago, long before I went to work at Ebury Place, Maurice was involved in a case that took him to the East End. While he was there, examining a murder victim, a man came rushing in shouting for help. Maurice followed the man to a neighboring house, where he found a woman in great difficulty in labor with her first child. The short story is that he saved her life and the life of the child, and came away determined to do something about the lack of medical care available to the poor of London, especially women and children. So for one or two days a week, he became a doctor for the living again, working with patients in the East End and then across the water, in Lambeth and Bermondsey.”
“Where does Waite come in?”
“Read the card and you’ll see. I think it was just before I came to Ebury Place, in 1910, that Maurice took Lady Rowan on one of his rounds. She was appalled and determined to help. She set about tapping all her wealthy friends for money so that Maurice might have a proper clinic.”
“I bet they gave her the money just to get her off their backs!”
“She has a reputation for getting what she wants and for not being afraid to ask. I think her example inspired Maurice. He probably met Waite socially and just asked. He knows immediately how to judge a person’s mood, and to use that—I suppose you’d call it energy—to his advantage.”
“Bit like you, Miss?”
Maisie did not reply but simply smiled. It had been her remarkable intuitive powers, along with a sharp intellect, that had led Maurice Blanche to accept her as his pupil and later as his assistant in the work he described as the forensic science of the whole person.
Billy continued. “Well, apparently old Dr. Blanche tapped Waite for five ’undred quid.”
“Look again, and you’ll probably find that the five hundred was the first of several contributions.” Maisie used the back of her hand to wipe away condensation accumulating inside the windshield.
“Oh ’ere’s another thing,” said Billy, suddenly leaning back with his eyes closed.
“What is it?” Maisie looked at her passenger, whose complexion was now rather green.
“I don’t know if I should read in the motor, Miss. Makes me go all queasy.”
Maisie pulled over to the side of the road and instructed Billy to open the passenger door, put his feet on the ground and his head between his knees. She took the cards and then summed up the notes on Joseph Waite. “Wealthy, self-made man. Started off as a butcher’s apprentice in Yorkshire—Harrogate—at age twelve. Quickly demonstrated a business mind. By the time he was twenty he’d bought his first shop. Cultivated the business, then outgrew it inside two years. Started selling fruit and veg as well, dried goods and fancy foods, all high quality and good prices. Opened another shop, then another. Now has several Waite’s International Stores in every city, and smaller Waite’s Fancy Foods in regional towns. What they all have in common is firstclass service, deliveries, good prices, and quality foods. Plus he pays a surprise visit to at least one store each day. He can turn up at any time.”
“I bet they love that, them as works for ’im.”
“Hmmm, you have a point. Miss Arthur sounded like a rabbit on the run when we spoke on the telephone this morning.” Maisie flicked over the card she was holding. “Now this is interesting . . .” she continued. “He called upon Maurice—yes, I remember this—to consult with him about ten years ago. Oh heavens . . .”
“What is it? What does it say?” asked Billy, wiping his brow with a handkerchief.
“This is not like Maurice. It says only, ‘I could not comply with his request. Discontinued communication.’”
“Charmin’. So where does that put us today?”
“Well, he must still have a high opinion of Maurice to be asking for my help.” Maisie looked at Billy to check his pallor. “Oh dear. Your nose is bleeding! Quickly, lean back and press down on the bridge of your nose with this handkerchief.” Maisie pulled a clean embroidered handkerchief from her pocket, and placed it on Billy’s nose.
“Oh my Gawd, I’m sorry. First I ’ave to lean forward, then back. I dunno . . . I’m getting right in the way today, aren’t I?”
“Nonsense, you’re a great help to me. How’s that nose?”
Billy looked down into the handkerchief, and dabbed at his nose. “I think it’s better.”
“Now then, we’d better get going.”