Coffin's Game

Coffin's Game

by Gwendoline Butler

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780373263530
Publisher: Harlequin
Publication date: 07/13/2000
Series: Commander John Coffin Mysteries Series
Edition description: Original
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 4.20(w) x 6.64(h) x 0.75(d)

Read an Excerpt



Chapter One


There were two great explosions on the same day in the Second City that autumn. One bomb went off, near the entrance to the new tunnel under the Thames which the Queen had opened but two years before. The tunnel was not damaged. The other bomb went off later in a shopping street. Most of the damage was in the ancient riverside borough of Spinnergate, but it had been heard as far away as East Hythe, and even Swinehouse, further east, had felt the blast. The new rich areas of Evelyn Fields and Tower Hill with their loft conversions in old warehouses and their smart flats in former factories had been spared — to the fury of Spinnergate, which was not smart or converted in any way. There had been deaths and more injuries in the second bomb, houses and offices nearby were blasted, but the tunnel itself was already open, with traffic running through it. Still, the Second City was used to surviving onslaughts, having come through the ravages of Romans, Vikings, and Normans, not to mention later enemies, amongst whom they numbered all governments, whether home-based or across the Channel. The habit of the population was to pick itself up and get on with living while cursing its rulers.

    They did regret that the complex system of video cameras placed high on many buildings around the Second City had yet to be extended to lesser streets, where it might have provided better clues. Instead they had to wait for the bombers to claim their work. Which they did, only when they thought they were safely away.

    It was war, after all.

    The other explosion, more personallyaimed, was about to happen.


Six days after the explosions, a row of houses which had been damaged in the blast was being tidied up. There was no major structural damage and the repairs, which were in the hands of a local firm, were expected to be finished quickly. The firm, William Archer Ltd, a small outfit which knew Percy Street well, glad of the work, was not going to rush, tacitly admitting that if the bomb brought work it was not altogether a bad bomb.

    Bill Archer, the boss and owner of the firm which his father had started, was in a bad mood, irritable because of the absence of his office manager who had taken some days off. Peter Corner had gone sick, sending a brief message that he had migraine.

    'Didn't think men got migraine,' grumbled his employer, 'that's for women. Why can't he just take an aspirin and come in?'

    'You can be quite ill with migraine,' said his wife, who had taken the message on the telephone. She was in the office doing the work herself so that if anyone had a grievance it was her. 'You pay him women's wages anyway.'

    'I pay him what he deserves, and I won't pay that if he doesn't turn up. Nancy boy. I bet it was a man on the phone to you.' Mrs Archer admitted silently that it was. 'Gone off together somewhere, I bet.' Bill was sharp. He often had labour problems. He employed casual labour, taking them on for a job and then sacking them. It was the way of his work, he would say; there had always been casual workers in the building trade. There were always men to be had. For instance, at this moment, he had a former bank clerk, a university graduate doing a thesis on economic history, and a seaman without a ship. His son and a nephew — his sister's son — he employed all the time.

    'I'll be round the corner in Percy Street.' He picked up his jacket as he departed.

    Bill Archer's son, George (they went in for royal names), was in charge and his cousin, Phil, was doing most of the work.

    Number five Percy Street was the third house in the row and had been empty and up for sale for six months or so. This was known by both George and Phil who had been given the key by the house agent and told to get on with the roof and the windows and ceiling in the top floor front room.


Phil ran up the stairs cheerfully, his first job of the day and a light one. It was very early in the morning; he liked to get a good start. He was a thin and eager man. Behind him came Tom McAndrew, taller, heavier and older, he it was who was working on a thesis and looking for a university job. Any job. But he was a good brickie and could turn his hand to anything electrical. Woodwork and plumbing, no.

    Phil pushed open the door. The wind blew through the shattered windows and shivered up to the rafters through the torn ceiling. If it had not been for the wind, he reckoned, there would have been more of a smell.

    On the floor, face in profile, was a body.

    'Don't touch,' said Tom, putting out a restraining hand, 'better not.'

    Bill, who had been talking to his son in the street outside the house, could be heard coming up the stairs. He was not going to be pleased.


A call from George Archer in his capacity as works foreman on the job brought a police patrol car to inspect 5 Percy Street and then two more senior officers to take another look.

Sergeant Mitchell and Detective Ellis Rice arrived before the police surgeon and before the Scene of Crime team. They stared down at the body lying on the floor of a room where the ceiling was half down and the windows out. They made a quiet, delicate, gloved inspection of the corpse and her possessions. She had a short fall of fair hair, she wore jeans, a white shirt, tucked in and belted, and on the hands were bloodstained white cotton gloves. There was a handbag on the floor. Mitchell carefully put on plastic gloves, then opened the bag and looked inside. He raised an eyebrow. Silently, he let Rice see what he had been seeing.

    'That bag hers?' asked Archer, who had come up the stairs with them. They had told him to stay behind, but he had ignored this advice.

    'Could be.'

    'It's a good bag.'

    It was; soft leather with an initial in gold.

    'That is no bomb injury,' said George Archer, staring at the corpse. 'Not the face.' He said this sadly; he was a former soldier who had served in the Falklands, he knew what wounds were and how they were made. Hands had done this work. Brutal, determined hands.

    'No,' said Mitchell. 'Not disputing that.' He crouched down to replace the woman's handbag on the floor beside her. He turned in query to his colleague. A meaning look passed between them: a question wanting an answer.

    'It can't be,' said the other. 'Can't be her.'

    'There's the handbag,' said Mitchell. 'That means something. Could have been stolen, I suppose.' He walked away. 'This is too much for us.'

    'SOCO will be here soon.'

    Mitchell had made up his mind. 'That's not enough,' he called over his shoulder. 'I am going to telephone.'

    Within the hour, two very senior detectives had arrived. The first to march up the stairs, quickly and lightly, was Chief Superintendent Archie Young. Behind him, climbing with that soft creeping movement that had won him the nickname of the Todger, was Inspector Thomas Lodge, a man of specialized knowledge and many tongues. He was an outsider who ran his own game.

    The two men walked into the room together, one tall and burly although quick moving, and the other several inches shorter, while the recently arrived SOCO team stood back.

    Archie Young surveyed the body, then knelt down for a closer look. 'I can't say; I ought to be able... I knew her — know her,' he amended. 'I simply can't say, the face has gone.' He looked at Inspector Lodge. 'Any views?'

    'That can probably be reconstructed. To some extent. In the long run it will be of use. Fingerprints also.'

    'You are looking at this from your point of view,' said Archie Young with some irritation. As you usually do, he muttered to himself. 'I can't go round collecting fingerprints to check if this is the body of the woman we think it is. Not this woman.'

    'The circumstances are unusual,' said Inspector Lodge calmly.

    'They bloody are.'

    Lodge drew his lips together. He rarely swore, but when he did he had a wide-ranging vocabulary in which to do it, from Russian to a couple of Chinese dialects, picked up in Soho.

    'There's nothing for it: we have to get the Chief Commander himself.'

    'He's away, isn't he?'

    'Back today, here now.' Archie Young looked at his watch. Still early, but he reckoned the Chief Commander would be in his office.

    'In situ?'

    'Yes, here and now.'

    Lodge nodded gravely, watching as Archie Young drew his mobile phone from his pocket. 'I hope that phone is protected,' he said.

    'It is, as you know very well. All mobiles are in this Force, no one can eavesdrop.' And to himself, Archie Young said: No wonder they call you the Todger. I wouldn't have you with me now if I didn't have to; you are the king of this particular territory. 'Sir,' he began, when John Coffin, Chief Commander of the Second City Police, answered on his private reserved line, and found himself stumbling, wondering how to go on.


* * *


Four days after the explosions, Stella Pinero had gone away.

    Before her going, there had been a moment of confusion and despair. And in the theatre, too.

    Stella Pinero was lost. She had stood centre stage and realized she had lost her words, lost where she was in Act One (that bit she could remember), and very nearly forgotten what play it was.

    Tension, that was the cause. Fear, yes, she could say that too.

    A voice prompted her: 'What letter?'

    Stella came to herself. 'You thought the letter had been destroyed. How foolish of you. It is in my possession, it was a swindle, Sir Robert.'

    An Ideal Husband, she said to herself, that's the play. Why on earth did I choose to produce that play here in my own theatre, when I had a free choice? Because it is popular with my audience, and I serve that audience.

    And because I have husbands on my mind; I am terribly, terribly worried about my own husband.

    At last a voice got through to her: 'Your carriage is here, Mrs Cheveley.'

    Stella once more came to and obliged with the speech: 'Thanks. Good evening, Lady Chiltern.'

    Then she realized what she had said and what it meant. It was a painful moment. Oh God, I must have gone through almost an act on autopilot. This could happen, all actors knew the phenomenon, but it would not do. She gathered herself together and carried on.

    Stella Pinero as Mrs Cheveley — she had naturally given herself the female lead — went backstage and sought comfort. Alice Yeoman was standing in the wings, watching.

    Stella had been persuaded to employ Alice by her husband, John Coffin. 'She's the child of a chap I served with,' he explained. 'We did a job together, he saved my life, got hurt himself. When he died last year, he asked me to look after the girl ... he'd been too old a father and her mother was gone. I don't see myself as a father-figure, but I promised I would see the girl through.' There had been a bit more to it, but this was not something to talk about. Alice was like Bill Yeoman and yet different.

    'That was the time I was out of touch with you,' said Stella.

    'I wasn't in touch with anyone much, I was fighting my way back.' After a bad time in his life and career, but he did not say this aloud. 'I owe her, give her a chance.'

    'Sure. She will have to be a good worker.' But Alice was quiet, alert and industrious. There was a private side to her: the easy, all-knowing, uncensorious commonwealth of the theatre observed that Alice trawled the town a bit. Stella wondered whether Coffin knew — but did it matter?

    Alice was a tall, well-built young woman, not a very good actress but not one to be underrated. Stella grabbed her, physically took her by the arm and stared in her face. Alice opened her eyes wide with surprise. 'Tell me, quickly, was I terrible?'

    'No, just the same as usual. Good, I mean. Stella, you're always good,' said Alice quickly. Alice was a minor member of the company with a few lines that prevented her being a mere walking understudy, but she was also deputy stage manager and helped with props; in short, a humble member of the theatre, while Stella Pinero was a famous actress with a long career behind her and this very theatre named after her. But this was a democratic company in which leading lady and minor actress could talk to each other on friendly terms. Alice admired Stella and also feared her. Not only was Stella famous and practically the owner of the Pinero Theatre in the old church, together with the Theatre Workshop and the small Experimental Theatre — all great things in themselves -- but her husband was Commander John Coffin, Head of the Police Force of the Second City.

    Stella went into her dressing room, sat down in front of her looking glass where she stared at her reflection. She was still a beauty, would be till she died; she had grown into beauty, a rare benefaction of nature but one given to her.

    Her make-up needed touching up, and mechanically she redid her lips and puffed on some powder. Her mind was not on it, but her hand was so used to the job that it smoothed her eyebrows and checked the line of her lips with its usual skill.

    She was not on for some time in the next act so she could sit back, breathe deeply and give herself good advice. Such as:

    Stop going into a panic.

    Pretend it's all a joke.

    Tell your husband.

    Oh, no, not John, not yet.

    Her call came, the first call, to remind her she should soon be in the wings awaiting her cue. Stella remembered the days when a boy came round to bang on your door with the news: you're on, Miss Pinero. Now, the word came over the intercom.

    She moved towards the wings, not waiting to be prompted.

    She could hear the dialogue. Here was Lady Chiltern (acted by Jane Gillam, a beautiful girl, very nearly straight out of RADA where she had won an important prize). Lady Chiltern was a difficult part because she was so humourless and stupid, but Jane was doing what she could with it.

    'Mrs Cheveley! Coming to see me? Impossible!'

    And here was Fanny Burt as Mabel Chiltern — she had better lines and even a few jokes, but Wilde reserved the best dialogue for the men: 'She is coming up the stairs, as large as life and not nearly so natural.'

    Not brilliant dialogue, Stella thought as she moved forward, but it got you on stage.

    Here she went: 'Isn't that Miss Chiltern? I should so much like to know her.'

    Stella stayed alert through the rest of the play. She had come to a decision. Speed seemed necessary, so she was off the stage as soon as the applause finished — to her pleasure there was a good show of enthusiasm — and slipped away to her dressing room without a word to the rest of the performers.

    There were thirteen members of the cast; in the original production there had been fifteen, but money was easier then, and Stella had been obliged to cut out the two footmen. Of the remainder, ten were what she thought of as her 'repertory company' inasmuch as they performed for her whenever she produced a play herself and did not buy one in. Most of these actors were young, and local, from the drama department in one of the nearby universities. Stella had early realized the importance of cultivating your neighbourhood to win affection and bring in the audiences. She had a lot of support always from the friends and families of her young performers.

    But you also needed an outsider to provide some extra excitement and here Jane Gillam, a star in the making, and Fanny Burt came in. The two men, Michael Guardian and Tom Jenks were attractive performers. Stella Pinero herself provided glitter.

    In her dressing room, Stella let her dresser remove her hat and garments as Mrs Cheveley. She did not appear in the last act, but had duly turned up for the last curtain. 'You pop off, Maisie,' she said to her elderly dresser. 'I know you want to get home. I will finish myself off.'

    'I'll be dressing Miss Bow next week?'

    'That's right.' Stella was creaming her face, removing the last of her make-up — she never used much, the days of heavy slap were over.

    Stella had introduced a fortnightly change of programme to entertain her limited audience in the Second City, which made a frequent change of programme an economic necessity.

    'A bit of an unknown quantity,' said Maisie, hanging up a green silk mantle. As an old hand, she was allowed a certain freedom of speech. 'But she's done well; starring roles straight from college.'

    'Yes.'

    Irene Bow was a graduate of the University drama department; she had been lucky with parts and had performed well in the Theatre Workshop production of Barefoot in the Park, and her crisp, rapid style of delivery would go down well in Michael Frayn's Noises Off. Stella now had two weeks to herself.

    'You have a nice rest then, Miss Pinero,' said Maisie. 'You've earned it.'

    If only, thought Stella.

    Maisie turned round at the door. 'Are you all right, Miss Pinero?'

    'I'm fine.'

    'You look a bit white.'

    'Don't you worry, Maisie.' Stella was rapidly doing her face, repairing what ravages she could and concealing any paleness with a thin foundation cream from Guerlain. 'You get off.' What she meant in her silent heart was: Please go away and leave me to think.

    Stella went to a locked drawer on the make-up table and withdrew a thickish envelope. She looked at it for a moment before opening it.

    Three old letters, two very recent ones, and a photograph. How wrong she had been to let that photograph be taken.

    Not drunk, not mad, just silly, she told herself. I cannot even claim that I was so young, she added. He was, I wasn't. Stupid, I was, carried away by emotion. Even now, when she knew what he was, what he had become, she remembered his physical beauty.

    She looked away from the letters, and inside herself let the dialogue go on: I did not know then that I would meet John Coffin again, that I would marry him and become the wife of a top policeman. When I married John, I tried to tell him of a few past affairs, but he laughed and said he did not want a General Confession, and he had not been without lovers himself.

    It was, she admitted to herself, one of her treasured moments, because it showed what a nice man John Coffin was, with a knack for good behaviour. He was also tough-minded, resolute and quick-tempered. Oh dear, she could hardly bear to think of all that being turned against her.

    He was fair, she told herself, very fair.

    For some reason, she found this no comfort as she stared at her face in the looking glass, for fairness could be a very sharp weapon. She touched her cheek with a careful finger. 'I must look after my skin, stress is bad for it. Maisie was right, I am a wreck.'

    She leaned, resting her chin on her right hand, and, ever the actress, mimed tragic despair.

    Possibly not a wreck, she allowed herself, withdrawing her hand, she had been a beauty and still was. Like many actresses she could make herself beautiful. She turned away from the looking glass to get dressed.

    Her hasty movement knocked the letters and the photograph to the ground. Three old letters from her, and two new ones from him. Unwelcome, unwanted letters, threatening letters, demanding letters.

    Pip Eton, student, actor, stared up at her from the photograph on the floor. How he had changed from what he had once been, to a treacherous beast. Once her lover, now ... What could she call him but a blackmailer, a criminal, a traitor?

    No, be fair, she told herself bitterly, it is you, Stella Pinero, whom he invites to be the traitor. And to betray whom? Your own husband, not sexually as a lover, but professionally as a policeman.

    A reviewer had once called Stella the 'modern comic muse'. Stella had valued that comment, she knew that she was a very good, possibly great comic actress, but now she felt a sting. Life had offered her a comedy, she reflected bitterly, and now she was being asked to play it as tragedy.

    She put the letters and the photograph into her big black crocodile handbag which she had bought when she had won the Golden Apple Award on Broadway, and forced herself to calm down.

    She could always kill someone. Preferably, Pip; if not, then very likely herself.

    Her husband was away from home tonight, she would have the place to herself. There were times when it was better to be on your own.


Dressed in her street clothes, Stella sped through the back corridors of the Pinero Theatre, ignoring a wave from Jane Gillam and a cheerful shout from Adam Fisk, who had played Lord Chiltern, to join them for a drink — they were going on to Max's for a meal afterwards. 'Can't manage tonight,' she called over her shoulder. 'Have a lovely time.'

    'What's the matter with her?' said Adam to Fanny and Jane. 'She always comes at the end of the run. Tradition.'

    'Her husband, I expect,' said Jane.

    'Why do you say that?'

    Jane shrugged. 'Just think so.'

    Stella stepped out into the open air, took three deep and calming breaths, then walked briskly to where she lived with the Chief Commander in the tower of the old church now converted into the theatre. There was one good thing about living on the job: you did not have far to walk home.

    She let herself in, switched on the light that illuminated the winding stair and listened, in case Coffin had come back, then walked up the stairs into silence.

    There was no cat or dog to greet her, both animals of the earlier generation had died within a few months of each other, as if, rivals and enemies as they were, they could not endure life without each other. And although Stella had often cursed the old cat, a battered old street cat, for waking her in the morning with its paw on her face, and grumbled at the dog for demanding that late-night walk, she missed them, too. They had been replaced by a sturdy white peke called Augustus, but he had declared himself Coffin's dog who must go where the boss went, so he was off now with Coffin on his travels.

    She made herself a pot of coffee, prepared a sandwich with cheese and, defiantly, a crisp spiced onion, something no performer would normally do, which she sat at the table in the kitchen eating. The strong hot drink together with food helped her to clear her mind.

    'I don't see the way forward yet, but I know I need to think it over and I will do that best on my own.'

    She could not talk it over with her husband because it was his career that could be ruined.

    'I am not a fool,' she said aloud. 'I know it is not the sexual element that would do him in — society is not so unsophisticated — nor the fact that I look as though... No, I won't utter what it looks as if I am doing. And it's not that, even, it's the security side that would destroy him.'

    She drank some coffee. The darkness outside seemed to creep in behind her eyes so that she could not see. 'Emotional mist,' she said in a loud voice, shaking her head.

    She went down the stairs to the large sitting room one floor below and poured herself a large glass of whisky which she then carried upstairs. She had seen tired detectives come back to life after a slug of it, so she guessed it would do the same for her.

    As she sipped it, she heard a rustle at floor level. She turned slowly to see what was there. A small grey mouse sat staring back at her. In the old days the cat had brought them in as an unwanted present for her mistress. This one must have made its way there under its own steam, or be a survivor. She found that thought comforting.

    'Hello, friend,' she said. 'Don't worry, you are safe with me tonight. I know how you feel: trapped in a hostile world.' She drank some more whisky. 'Fear not. Appearances to the contrary,' she added, 'I won't eat you.'

    The mouse slid quietly away on his own business. He was a resident, knew the ways of the house, would not be seen again for some time.

    Stella finished her whisky, then took herself upstairs to her bedroom. Off the bedroom was a small dressing room contrived out of a corner of the room.

    She looked at her clothes hanging in a neat row behind a glass door. She changed into a comfortable trouser suit, packed a small bag.

    One more task and the most painful: a lying letter. She hated deceiving her husband, partly because she was a naturally truthful person — which all actresses must be, since nothing shows up more on the stage than falseness — but also because the Chief Commander had a sharp eye for an untruth.


    Dearest,

A late call from Silverline Films for the part of Annie Burnett, the prosecutor, in their new detective drama series. My agent says I simply must try for it ... I am flying out to New York overnight.

Give me time. I will get in touch. I have to think.


    Truth will out, she told herself, as she wrote the last words.

    Then she scrawled: 'I really want this chance'. Again the truth; she did want such a chance, if offered. Her career had been on hold lately, and Coffin knew she fancied this part. Heaven knows, she had talked about it enough. He would believe her, accept the letter.

    'All my love,' she ended.

    Then she went across to the fax machine which lived on a shelf from which the messages popped out and slid to the ground. None there at the moment.

    She wrote a note for her assistant in the theatre — Away for a few days — and the same to her co-producer, both of which she then faxed out to them.

    Hardly had she moved a step away when the fax rang and a message spilled itself out in front of her. Slowly, feeling heavy with premonition, she bent down to pick it up.


IN THE NEXT MINUTE THE TELEPHONE WILL RING. ANSWER IT.


    Stella picked up her bag and turned away. That was one bell she would not answer.


She was at the door when the telephone rang. It became hard to breathe. She hesitated, knowing that she wanted to ignore it, but she was like a rabbit before a stoat. Stuck, frozen.

    But you never knew with telephone calls. Perhaps it really was a summons from her agent. She knew it would not be John Coffin. He was driving down the M40 — probably, she didn't really know where he was. He had a professional knack of disappearing. The thought went through her mind as she picked up the telephone; if he can disappear, so can I.

    She held the receiver in her hand without speaking.

    'I know you're there, Stella. I can hear you breathing.'

    'How did you get this number?' Silly question, it was supposed to be secret, but it was this man's life's work to get at secrets.

    A laugh came back as a reply. 'I want to meet you, Stella. I think you need to see me to take me seriously. This is serious.'

    Stella did not answer.

    'Come on, Stelly, I won't eat you.' He laughed, and Stella felt sick. 'Meet me at Waterloo, under the clock. Remember, that, Stelly? It was always the same place, wasn't it? Be there.'

    Stella stood there, still clutching her bag. 'No, no, I can't, I can't.'

    She picked up her bag, went down the staircase and out of the door.

    Outside, in the night air, she looked around in case anyone was there.

    Silence, quiet. Not a mouse stirring.


A whole day after Stella had gone away, John Coffin, Chief Commander of the Police Force of the Second City of London, let himself into his home. He was back some twenty-four hours before he was expected, and meant to have a quiet time working. He was accompanied by the white peke Augustus who had appointed himself dog-companion to Coffin and insisted on going everywhere he could with him. Coffin had gone away after the bombs had exploded; his departure had not been unconnected with that happening. His assistant, Paul Masters, kept him in touch.

    Coffin was glad to be back; he had observed that the play running at the Pinero Theatre was no longer An Ideal Husband which meant, he hoped, that he would find Stella at home.

    He put down his bags and ran up the stairs, calling out: 'Stella, I'm back.'

    He was a big man, but spare of frame and light on his feet. His hair, which had been reddish in his youth, had darkened with the years and was now greying neatly about his temples. He was neat in everything he did. Thin as a young man he had never put on weight, although he took no exercise, other than running up and down the stairs of his home in the tower; he took part in no sports and never had. 'We didn't in my day in working-class London,' he said once, 'except a bit of street football and pavement boxing. Pugilism, more like,' he had added thoughtfully. But there was muscle beneath the suits, which, under Stella's control, were well and expensively tailored. Still done in the East End of London, but now he knew where to go. And how to pay.

    'How come you have such muscles here and there?' Stella had said once.

    'Inherited,' Coffin had answered. 'Runs in the family.' Though he had hardly had a family. Orphaned, he had only discovered in later life that he had a disappearing, much married mother, who had provided him with two siblings, one half-brother, a stiff Edinburgh lawyer, and the other, from another alliance, his darling half-sister. Mother herself remained an absentee, except for leaving some extraordinary memoirs.

    Silence.

    From behind a curtain on the window where the stair curved, he saw a tail, then a cautious beady gaze.

    'Oh, hello, boy,' Coffin said. 'You still here? Better not let Stella see you. You and I are going to have to stop meeting like this.' Augustus bustled up the stairs behind him, ready to take part in the game, but the mouse was gone.

    The quiet of the tower was telling its own story; it spoke of emptiness. Stella was not here.

    The place did not feel like home without Stella in it. He knew why; marriage with Stella had given him the stable home life which a first disastrous marriage had failed to do.

    Coffin had been in Edinburgh where, amongst other things, he had visited his half-brother in the large, handsome, frigid house he inhabited. William matched the house; so much so that Coffin found it difficult to relate to him as a brother, even half a brother. Their meeting had been stiff and formal as they talked over the research Coffin was trying to do on the life of their eccentric parent. Sometimes, he thought his mother might still be alive and building up yet another family; though she would be near her century now, he did not put it past her. He wished he had known her, but disappearing was her game.

    He was back home now and miserable. In Scotland he had been at a conference of top policemen held in a remote house. It had been one of those conferences which had appeared to be on one subject but which had had a covert purpose.

    Coffin had learnt a few things at Melly House that would concern him and his district, and had been, tactfully, informed of certain others. He, in his turn, had passed on certain information.

    Knowledge, he reflected, as he read Stella's note, is a painful thing. She will ring, probably from New York. I will know from the tone of her voice if I ought to raise what I learnt at Melly House.' He was desperately anxious but he kept calm; he knew he must.

    The time passed quietly, with no call from Stella. He had ahead of him several busy days, a meeting in central London, two committees, one about finance. The bombs in his district, the need for increased security all round, had meant extra spending.

    He knew that Stella usually stayed at the Algonquin, so he rang there first. Miss Pinero was not a guest, he was told politely. She was well known there and a welcome visitor, but, regretfully, she was not staying at the hotel just now.

    If she could afford it, or if someone else, like the film company, was paying, Stella liked the St Regis.

    But Stella was not there, either.

    Finally, he did what he should have done at first, but disliked doing: he telephoned her London agent. He knew that Doria Jones thought he was bad for Stella's career, that he kept her cooped up in the Second City when she ought to be adorning the London or New York stage. In short, she thought Coffin was a chauvinistic, oppressive spouse.

    Doria's secretary answered his call, saying in her polite but chirpy voice that Doria was out of town and would not be back until the late evening.

    In the evening, he worked on papers and prepared a speech he had to give at an official dinner. That done he had a meal, then a drink, and fell asleep. Then, late as it was, he telephoned Doria at home.

    She replied in person, sounding surprised to hear him. She had a soft, sweet voice and always said that Stella was her favourite client — which may have been true.

    'No, darling, I don't know where Stella is. I did not send her an urgent message. Definitely not.'

    She was willing to go on talking about this, but Coffin was not. 'Thanks, Doria, I got it wrong. My fault. Sorry I bothered you.'

    He put the telephone down. 'Stella, damn you, where are you?' Coffin's life had ruled out trusting people. Stella was an exception. He still loved and trusted her, but he wanted to know where she was.

    Coffin did not sleep much that night. 'If I have lost Stella, either physically or emotionally, because she wasn't what I thought she was, I would not die. I would go on, because I have learnt how to survive, but I would be shrunken.'

    In the dawn he went down to the kitchen and made some coffee, which he sat at the table drinking. The sky outside was pink with light. He couldn't see the mouse but he heard a rustle by the window.

    'Could she be dead?' he asked himself. 'If what I heard in Melly House was true, then the company she is mixing with might easily kill her if they scented danger.' He felt a groan rising inside him. 'I am part of the danger, although God knows I don't want to be.'

    It was not all his fault though, and he knew that, too. Stella had to bear her share.

    'When she gets in touch, comes back, we will work this through somehow,' he told himself. He finished the coffee, made toast, put some cheese down for the mouse, then ate the toast standing by the window watching the sun slowly rise into view.

    He felt better. At intervals he told himself that he would certainly know if anything had happened to Stella. He would sense it. Would he, though? Wasn't that precisely the sort of fallacy he would discourage in other people?

    On the other hand, he would be told, someone would tell him, he was the person who was told things, he was in a position to know what was happening.

    Anyway, Stella would telephone soon. Or walk in the door, then they could talk things over. 'I don't blame you for anything, Stella,' he would say, 'but I must know.'

    Didn't that sound pompous, precisely the sort of comment that would make Stella stamp out of the room in a rage? Phrase it better, Coffin. You will when you see her, it will happen.

    'You may never see her again,' a voice whispered in his ear.

    The information appertaining to Stella — lovely professional phrase that, if a little pompous — was nothing much, merely her name on a list, but it had been fed to him so discreetly, almost anonymously and without comment. He had been observed, though; notice taken, as you might say.

    He was surprised to find that during all this inner conversation he had driven himself to work and had arrived, safely, too, in his office.

    He sped through the outer office where two uniformed officers manned the defences, then with a brisk good morning to them he entered the inner office where three people worked — his assistant Paul Masters, and the two secretaries: Gillian, and the new girl, Sheila, who had replaced the elegant Sylvia — before hurrying into his own room which was empty and quiet, and smelt of furniture polish with a touch of disinfectant. Pine, he thought.

    'Got back early,' he announced, as he passed through to his work-laden desk. The usual files to read and initial, a larger than customary folder of letters to sign (and there would be more when his secretary came in, but she was tactfully leaving him for a few minutes), and the notes of telephone calls received and to be returned.

    A call from Archie Young, but no message. Coffin frowned. This was unlike Archie who was always businesslike and not mysterious. He rang his secretaries; Sheila answered.

    'Do you know anything about these calls from Chief Superintendent Young?'

    Sheila Heslop had been with him for six months now, more or less taking charge of the outer office and organizing Gillian, who was about to take study leave. In a quiet way, she organized the Chief Commander, too.

    'He rang me first to see if you were in, sir,' she said carefully. 'I suggested that he speak to Inspector Masters, but he said he wanted you. I think he had something he wanted to talk to you about.'

    'Oh, well, I expect I will be here.'

    'I rather think he might be ringing again,' she said, with what might have been a touch of nervousness. This made Coffin answer her sharply.

    'What makes you say that?'

    'Just a feeling, sir.'

    Coffin looked at his watch. Still early, still time for Stella to ring.

    He took up the report on the bombings in the Second City, which came with photographs and a video of the bombers.

    In two seconds the phone went. Coffin picked it up eagerly to hear Archie Young's hesitant voice. 'Something you ought to see, sir. A body... Percy Street.'


'I'll drive you round, sir,' Archie Young had said. 'Unless you would rather use your own driver?' He could see someone had better drive the Chief Commander. Coffin had a new driver — not a member of the Force; police officers cost too much to train to be used as chauffeurs.

    'He's away,' said Coffin. 'Thank you, Archie, you drive.'

    So tense he felt sick, Coffin let Archie Young lead him into the house in Percy Street. There was a ring of fellow officers there, the SOCO team, the police surgeon, and Inspector Lodge.

    With automatic good manners he nodded towards them all, but did not speak. He looked at the body lying on the floor, the terribly damaged face staring upwards. He saw the handbag lying on the floor.

    He walked forward, forcing himself to study well what he saw. He stared for some minutes before turning away. 'No, that is not my wife. Yes, she wore jeans like that; yes, she had such a handbag, but the body is not hers.'

    Inspector Lodge met Coffin's eyes with a meaningful stare: I hope you know what you are doing.

    Archie Young muttered something about the material in the handbag.

    'I don't care what is inside the handbag. That is not my wife,' said Coffin in a quiet voice. 'It is not Stella.'

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