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"[Rennie Airth's] meticulously detailed procedural mysteries are beautifully written . . . well worth reading, and rereading."—Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review
Rennie Airth's The Death of Kings is now available from Viking.
On a freezing London night in 1944, Rosa Novak is brutally murdered during a blackout. Scotland Yard suspects the young Polish refugee was the victim of a random act of violence and might have dropped the case if former police investigator John Madden hadn't been her employer. Madden feels he owes it to Rosa to find her killer and pushes the investigation, uncovering her connection to a murdered Parisian furrier, a member of the Resistance, and a stolen cache of diamonds.
Delivering the atmospheric writing and compelling characters that have already established Rennie Airth as a master of suspense as well as style, this long-awaited third installment in the John Madden series is historical crime writing at its best.
About the Author
Rennie Airth was born in South Africa and worked as a foreign correspondent for Reuters before becoming a novelist. He is the author of two other John Madden mysteries, River of Darkness, a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Novel and a Macavity Award for Best Mystery, and a New York Times Notable Book, and The Blood-Dimmed Tide. He lives in Cortona, Italy.
Read an Excerpt
Paris, May 1940
DUSK WAS FALLING by the time Maurice Sobel reached Neuilly, and he walked the short distance from the Metro to his house in the cold, not quite earthly light of the blue-painted street lamps which were the city’s sole concession to the war that was about to engulf it. His pace was brisk, and twice he glanced over his shoulder to assure himself that the street behind him was empty. The creak of the garden gate when he opened it was a welcome sound.
Only then did he relax his grip on the handle of the attachécase he was carrying. Since leaving Eyskens’s office he’d been holding it tightly, and he felt the prickle of pins and needles in his fingers now as he shifted the case to his left hand and fumbled in his pocket for his house key.
Normally he would have been brought home by car, but that morning he’d paid off the last of the household staff, including his chauffeur, a blunt Breton by the name of Dugarry. Maurice had found the farewells upsetting and the sight of the darkened house as he walked up the gravel path to the front door was a reminder of the loss suffered by all parties. Florence, their cook, and a family retainer for the better part of a quarter of a century, had clung to his hand when they’d said goodbye. There’d been tears in her eyes.
‘Tell Madame . . .’ She had begun to speak three or four times, but been unable to continue. ‘Ah, but you’ll be back . . .’ It was all she could say.
Maurice had pressed her hand in return. ‘Of course, of course . . .’ Not knowing if it was true. Not knowing if they would ever meet again.
With a sigh he unlocked the door and switched on the lights in the hall. The emptiness around him seemed unnatural - he was used to the house being filled with people, loud with the voices of family and friends - and he regretted, not for the first time, his decision to postpone his departure, when he could have taken passage on the same ship that had carried his wife and their two sons across the Atlantic to New York a month earlier. Unwisely, deceived by the slow march of events in Europe following the occupation of Poland, he’d chosen to remain in Paris for a little while longer, taking time to dispose of his business and to attend to the many other details, such as the leasing of his house, which had required his attention. The delay had proved costly. He had not yet wound up his affairs when the long-threatened German invasion had been launched a week earlier, and with their armoured units advancing now with giant strides across the Low Countries and - according to as yet unconfirmed reports - about to encircle the French army entrenched on the Somme, he had been forced to take emergency measures, selling off the last of his stock at rock-bottom prices and, even worse, engaging in the kind of transaction he would normally have shunned in an attempt to salvage at least a portion of these assets.
On that last day - the last for him, at any rate - the city had worn an air of exhaustion. The soft breeze with its promise of spring had expired, like the hopes of so many, and it was the stifling heat of summer that hung in the air now and seemed poised to descend on streets already starting to empty as cars made their slow exit bumper to bumper from the capital in anticipation of the threat that daily drew closer. Although government spokesmen had said that every inch of French soil would be defended, Maurice knew from other sources - from the rumours that sped from mouth to mouth - that the German panzers were already moving south from the coast. He had glimpsed military lorries drawn up in lines outside ministries, prepared to cart away files and other vital equipment. And although no refugees had yet appeared in Paris, travellers arriving from the north-east spoke of roads clogged by those trying to escape the fighting; of whole families on the move pushing handcarts loaded with their possessions. More ominously still, there were even reports that French soldiers without their arms had joined the fleeing columns.
Although his appointment with Eyskens was not until the afternoon, Maurice had gone into the city earlier and after calling at his bank had paid a final visit to what had been until recently the store that bore his family’s name: Sobel Fre‘res. Furriers of distinction, the shop was located off the rue St Honoré, and although Maurice had relinquished the lease on the property he still had a key to the street door. Wandering about the deserted rooms, he had felt a deep sadness. It had taken his family years to build up the business - the company had been founded by his grandfather - and its loss felt like an amputation. He could think of no sight more desolate that day than the rows of empty hangers where only a few weeks before the finest furs had been on display, no sign more indicative of abandonment and flight than the thin patina of dust already starting to gather on the glass-topped counters.
Seeking an antidote to his depression, he’d chosen to lunch for the last time at a favourite restaurant in the rue Cambon, one he had patronized regularly over the years, where his face and name were known not only to the patron and waiters but also to some of the other clients, successful businessmen like himself, with whom he was accustomed to exchanging nods. No doubt some of them had heard of his decision to leave: he thought he detected sympathy in the glances cast his way. But for the most part they seemed preoccupied with their own affairs. (How could they not be?) They were taking stock of the new reality. And while there was little they could do to alter it, Maurice had nevertheless been distressed to observe the all too familiar hint of a shrug in their manner; that lift of the shoulders so peculiar to the French, signifying acceptance of a situation, however disagreeable.
Catching sight of his own image in a gold-framed mirror on the other side of the restaurant - wryly noting the elegance of his appearance, his silvered hair barbered to a millimetre, the distinction of his dark suit, one of several he’d had tailored in London, its sombre hue set off by a splash of red silk spilling from his breast pocket - he’d reflected on how little he differed from these pillars of the bourgeoisie, at least on the surface. How even now, he might have been pondering his country’s future in the light of the fate that was about to overtake it: assessing what impact occupation by a foreign power would have on himself and his family, how best to protect his interests. In all probability the course of his life had not differed much from theirs. As a youth he had run up debts and made a fool of himself over women - to the despair of his father - but later redeemed himself by volunteering to serve in the war which only a generation earlier had bled his country white, and being twice decorated for gallantry. He had married well and raised a family.
But none of that mattered any longer, he knew, none of it counted. The future lay with the jackbooted conquerors whose armoured units even now were beating a path to the city’s gates, and they would not be deceived.
A Jew was a Jew.
Willem Eyskens’s office, or rather his place of business, since buying and selling were very much part of his day-to-day operations, was located off the rue de Rivoli. The brass plate beside the locked door bore his name, but gave no further information. Indeed, if you were not expected there in all likelihood you were not welcome, and beyond the door, which was only opened after the caller had adequately identified himself, access was further barred by a guard, presumably armed, who sat at a table in the small entrance hall with an alarm button close at hand. Maurice had been given Eyskens’s name by a business associate, a dealer in costume jewellery and other fashion accessories with whom he did business from time to time.
‘He’s a diamond broker with connections in Amsterdam. Dutch originally, but he’s been settled here a long time. He only deals in good-quality stones, I’ve been told, and he’s discreet. He can certainly provide what you need - at a price, of course.’
The price, as it turned out, had been high. Eyskens had outlined the cruel economics of it at their first meeting. ‘It’s always the same in dangerous times. People try to save what they have. You can’t take a factory with you, a business. So you turn it into something you know has value. Gold, if you can carry enough of it; otherwise stones. Diamonds. There’s no need to explain what effect this demand has on the market.’
A thin-faced man with red cheeks and fair hair brushed back from his forehead, Eyskens had kept his gaze on the surface of his rosewood desk while he spoke. It was as though he was embarrassed to meet Maurice’s gaze.
‘Sufficient to say you are not the first to come to me with a request of this kind, Monsieur Sobel. These are, as I say, terrible times. Let us be businesslike. Your need is urgent, I see that. The short notice makes for difficulties, but I can provide what you want. However, I would prefer if this were a cash transaction.’
‘You don’t want a cheque?’ Maurice hadn’t been altogether surprised.
‘It’s not a matter of trust, I assure you. Your reputation is beyond question.’ Eyskens had shown small signs of discomfort. ‘But I will be forced to cut corners, if I can put it like that. And later on questions may be asked - I don’t mean by the French authorities. Paris may soon be under new rulers, men who might wish to enquire into favours done for . . . for . . .’
‘Jews?’ Maurice had furnished the word he was trying not to utter.
‘I am sorry . . .’ Eyskens had spread his hands on the desk.
Their first meeting had taken place the previous week, and that afternoon, having earlier withdrawn the cash from his bank - Maurice had given Eyskens a round figure to work with - he had proceeded to their final appointment. Once again he’d been shown upstairs to the diamond broker’s office, a small, windowless room, bare of decoration, where Eyskens was waiting. Before him on the desk was a black velvet bag tied with a drawstring. It lay on a piece of felt which had been spread across the desk. Beside the bag was a jeweller’s loupe.
‘I will leave you now.’ Eyskens rose. ‘You will want to examine the stones. Please take your time. I have made a list’ - he took a piece of paper from his jacket pocket and handed it to Maurice. ‘The stones are marked by weight, but you will be able to tell by the size and the shape which is which. Taken together they match the sum we agreed on. Of course, if any of them doesn’t meet with your approval, it can be discarded and we will make the necessary adjustment to the total.’ He bowed and left the room.
Maurice had wasted no time. Uncomfortable though the transaction made him feel, he had taken a decision and meant to stick to it. With the start of the war, the movement of funds by more orthodox means had become increasingly difficult and the German invasion had brought even those to a halt. True, in the past few months he had managed to shift a good portion of his assets abroad, but he was reluctant to leave anything he possessed to the new masters of Europe, these brutal despoilers of his people.
Emptying the velvet bag on to the felt, he had examined the glittering contents. Though no expert, his experience as a furrier had made him familiar with all aspects of the fashion trade, including its most luxurious and costly items, and a few minutes’ study with the loupe were enough to reassure him of the quality of the goods he was purchasing. The bag contained a score of diamonds - cut stones, as he’d requested - the biggest the size of his thumbnail, all of the finest water.
By the time the broker returned ten minutes later, Maurice had emptied the attaché case, which had been resting on the floor at his feet, and laid out the stacks of banknotes he had brought in a neat pile alongside the diamonds.
‘You are satisfied, then?’ Eyskens resumed his position across the desk.
Maurice was relieved that their business was over. For some reason - its hole-in-the-wall nature, perhaps - he’d found it distasteful. Nor had he warmed to the man who sat facing him. The Dutchman’s pale blue eyes were unreadable.
‘Would you like to count the money, Monsieur Eyskens?’
‘Given who I am dealing with, that will not be necessary.’ The broker had accompanied these words with a polite bow. They both rose.
‘Goodbye, Monsieur Sobel. I wish you good fortune.’
There was nothing more he could do. Everything was set now for his departure the following morning, and as he wandered about the house switching on lights, Maurice went over the plans he’d made, plans which had grown in complication as the situation around him became more unstable. With sailings from Le Havre suspended, he’d been obliged to look further afield and had managed to book passage on a liner leaving Lisbon for New York in a week’s time. This had still left him with the problem of getting to the Portuguese capital, and having considered - and discarded - the idea of trying to find a seat on the by now overcrowded trains heading south from the city daily, he had decided instead to make the long journey by motor car.
Dugarry’s last job before departing to join his wife and children in Rennes had been to service the Sobels’ Citroën cabriolet and to ensure that the tyres were in good condition and reserve supplies of fuel stowed aboard. Even so, Maurice might have felt daunted by the thought of the drive ahead - apart from the odd Sunday outing it was some years since he had driven a car - had it not been for a stroke of good fortune that had come his way a few days earlier. An acquaintance of his, a Polish art dealer called Kinski, long settled in France, had rung him out of the blue to ask, if it was not prying, if it was not an indelicate question, whether what he had heard was true - that Sobel was intending to quit Paris and would be travelling to Spain in his car? Before Maurice had time to get over his surprise - he had discussed his plans with only one or two people - Kinski had revealed the reason for his enquiry.
‘I’ve been asked if I can help a young man whom the Nazis would like to get their hands on. A Polish officer. Jan Belka’s his name. He joined the resistance soon after the Germans occupied Warsaw, but unfortunately his group was betrayed and he had to get out in a hurry. He’s been in Paris for some time, without papers, of course, and now he’s in danger again. He’d like to get to London, but Spain would be a start. I was wondering . . . would it be possible . . .? ’
While Kinski was speaking, Maurice had had time to reflect on the fact that it was not so surprising after all that his help should have been sought in the matter. The Sobels were Polish by extraction. They made no secret of it.
‘You want me to take this man with me?’
‘If possible. And his companion, a young woman, also Polish.’ Kinski had hesitated. He said delicately, ‘I understand she is Jewish.’
Ignoring the momentary prick of anger he felt just then - as if the fact that the girl was Jewish might sway him, as if he might be less inclined to help a mere gentile - Maurice had responded without hesitation.
‘Of course, my dear fellow. I’d be happy to take them.’ He’d spoken honestly. ‘In fact, you’re doing me a favour. I’d rather not make this trip alone.’
‘I can’t thank you enough.’ Kinski’s relief had been plain.
‘Give them my address. Tell them we’ll be leaving two days from now, on Thursday. I want to make an early start, so I suggest they spend Wednesday night with me. The house will be empty during the day - I’m paying off the staff - but I’ll be home by six. I’ll expect them then.’
He looked at his watch now. It was a few minutes after the hour. He reminded himself he must check the bedrooms on the floor above to make sure that the maids had prepared them as instructed before departing. Maurice had no idea whether his guests were a couple or not and had decided to offer them a room each and then leave it to them to settle their sleeping arrangements. For his own part he would be glad to have them as company on this last evening. The house was full of ghosts for him; full of memories. Although some of the furniture had already been dispatched across the Atlantic and other pieces put in storage, there were enough reminders of the life he and his family had shared here to weigh on his spirits and fill him with a sense of loss.
But he knew these were thoughts he must put behind him. The future was what concerned him now, the immediate future. Pausing by his desk to gaze dreamily at a photograph of his wife, which he’d not yet packed, Maurice delivered a silent reproof to himself. Léonie Sobel was a woman of character and her dark, emphatic features showed a strength he had come to rely on over the years. He knew very well if she were here now she would tell him to leave off wool-gathering. To focus his mind on the business in hand. In particular, there was the problem of the diamonds, which he’d taken out of the attaché case and placed on the desk beside his wife’s photograph, to be resolved. How best to transport them? He’d be crossing two borders in the coming days, and quite possibly his luggage would be searched. It might be as well to remove temptation from the gaze of customs officers who’d be only too well aware of his predicament: of the threat that had driven him, and others like him, to take flight.
Even as he considered the question, weighing the velvet bag in his hand, he felt the beginnings of despair take hold of him, a feeling of hopelessness not rooted in the moment - he knew he could deal with the immediate problems facing him - but rather in the sense of destiny as a curse from which there was no escape. Despite the years of prosperity, his family had not forgotten their past. Dealers in furs for generations, the Sobels had fled the Pale of Settlement before the turn of the century, leaving behind them the bloody pogroms that had racked the western borders of the Tsar’s empire. How many times, Maurice wondered, had he heard his grandfather, dead now these twenty years, tell of the night he had seen his parents’ neighbour, a watchmaker, beaten to death in the street before a watching crowd while their own house went up in flames? Now, once again, the blood was flowing. Was there no end to it?
With a growl, he broke the spell. Enough! The dark street his thoughts had wandered down led nowhere. Frowning, he stared at the soft velvet bag resting in the palm of his hand, and as he did so an idea came to him. It concerned his street coat, which he’d taken off and hung up in the hall when he came in. Another Savile Row creation, its elegant folds contained an ample expanse of silk lining, and it had occurred to him that this might be put to some practical use as a place of concealment. It would require some skill in sewing, he saw that, but surely this young woman who was about to arrive could help him there. He didn’t doubt he could trust her, she and her companion both, these brave young people, who even if they were fleeing with him now, surely meant to continue the fight against the loathed enemy. London, Caspar Kinski had said. That was where they meant to go, and Maurice wondered if he might not be able to help them achieve their aim. With money, certainly, but perhaps in other ways, too, once they had reached Spain. He had business contacts in many capitals.
Cheered by the thought - he was relieved to have shrugged off his dark mood - Maurice went out into the entrance hall where his coat was hanging. As he reached for it, he heard the creak of the garden gate followed by the sound of footsteps on the gravel path. Smiling a greeting, he opened the door to what he thought were his guests and received instead a blow to the jaw that sent him staggering backwards and then, before he had time to react, a second to the side of his head that knocked him to the paved floor. Crouched on his hands and knees, spitting out blood from a cut lip, he was aware only of a pair of trousered legs which moved swiftly around him and out of his blurred vision. Next moment his throat was encircled by something so thin it seemed to have no substance, but which burned like fire as it cut its way into his flesh, deeper and deeper. The pain was intense, but it lasted for only a few moments. Then sight and consciousness faded and his agony ceased.
London, November 1944
HANDS IN POCKETS, Bert huddled deeper in the doorway. Crikey, it was cold!
The wind that had got up earlier was still blowing, but not in gusts like before; now it was steady. It had force, and the power of it cut clean through his coat and overalls, and the jersey he was wearing underneath that, and went straight to his bones. And though his tin helmet, with the W for air-raid warden painted on the front, was safely settled on his head and hardly likely to fly away, even in the gale that was blowing, he clutched at it automatically.
‘You’ll catch your death, Bert Cotter, going out on a night like this,’ Vi had warned him earlier when he’d been preparing to set off from the small flat in St Pancras where they lived. She’d insisted he put on an extra vest. ‘And what’s the use anyway? It’s no good telling people to put their lights out. It don’t make no difference to a buzz bomb.’
The advice was wasted on Bert. Hadn’t he been saying the same thing himself for weeks? There hadn’t been a proper raid on London since the summer. The Luftwaffe - the bloomin’ Luftwaffe to Vi - had finally shot its bolt, or so they were assured. Now there were only the flying bombs to worry about. Those and these new V-2 rockets, which the government had finally admitted were falling on the city, though most people had already guessed it. After all, how many times could mysterious explosions be put down to gas leaks before people started asking questions?
‘What do they take us for?’ Vi had enquired of him in all seriousness. As though she thought he might actually know the answer. ‘Bloomin’ idiots?’
Fishing out a packet of fags from his coat pocket, Bert chuckled. She was right about the blackout, though. The whole of London could be lit up and it wouldn’t change a thing. The bombs and rockets fell where they fell, and all you could hope was it wasn’t your head they came down on.
He lit his cigarette and then used the flickering flame of the match to check his wristwatch. He was close to the end of his three-hour tour of duty and anxious to get home. Too old to enlist - he’d done his bit in France in the last shindig - Bert had opted to serve part time in civil defence, and since he worked in the area, being employed as a carpenter and general handyman at the British Museum, he’d joined a squad of wardens assigned to the Bloomsbury district. There’d been a time, back in ’40, during the Blitz, when Jerry bombers had come over night after night, turning whole areas of the city into cauldrons of fire, when the job had been one to be proud of.
But now Bert wasn’t so sure. The excitement he’d felt at the start of the conflict had long since faded. Truth to tell he was sick of patrolling the night-time streets, fed up with blowing his whistle and bawling up at people to ‘put that bloody light out’. It was a feeling shared by many, and not least by his fellow wardens, if that evening’s performance was anything to go by. When Bert had turned up at their rendezvous point a little earlier - it was a pub in the Tottenham Court Road - he’d discovered that no fewer than four of the dozen-strong squad had rung in to excuse themselves. Two had bad colds (they said), one had twisted his ankle (a likely story) and the fourth had referred to some unspecified family crisis that prevented him from leaving home. Vi was right. Only a muggins like yours truly would venture out on a night like this.
His thoughts were interrupted by the wail of a siren. It sounded close by, coming from the area of Covent Garden, he guessed, and instinctively he glanced upwards, searching for the telltale finger of flame that would signal the approach of a flying bomb. During the summer they arrived day and night from across the Channel, and Londoners had learned to recognize the sinister drone of their engines and to dread the moment when the noise ceased and the craft, loaded with explosives, plunged to earth. Fewer fell now, it was true: the advance of the Allied armies in France and Holland had forced the Jerries to move their launching sites. But the threat was far from over. Only a few weeks before, returning home from work, crossing Tavistock Square, Bert had seen one pass overhead and heard its engine cut out. The tremendous explosion that followed had made the windows in the square rattle, and seconds later a huge buff plume of smoke had risen from the vicinity of King’s Cross like a pillar into the grey October sky. Ears pricked, he waited now, but after a minute or so the noise stopped and the silence of the night was restored. A false alarm.
Bert put out his cigarette. It was time to get moving. The doorway where he’d taken refuge was in Little Russell Street, near the corner of Museum Street, and he needed only to walk over to Tottenham Court Road to reach the boundary of his allotted territory, a patchwork of narrow roads bounded to the north by Great Russell Street and to the south by Bloomsbury Way. The wardens usually patrolled in pairs, but because of the absentees that evening he was on his own and had already decided to shorten his route. Not two minutes from where he stood now, at the top of Museum Street, his place of employment loomed large and lightless, and although it seemed deserted he knew very well that the museum’s doors would be unlocked and a squad of volunteer firemen would be on duty inside. (They’d been posted there as a precaution ever since a night back in 1941 when dozens of incendiary bombs had come through the roof during a Jerry raid and several of the rooms had been burned out.) What he planned to do was pop in there for a cup of tea, get the cold out of his bones, and then leg it home to St Pancras. (And two nights from now when he was next on duty he might just come down with a cold himself.)
As Bert slipped out of the doorway he heard footsteps, and next moment a dark figure came swinging round the corner from Museum Street.
‘Whoops . . . ! Sorry, miss.’
If it hadn’t been for the cry the figure let out as they collided Bert might not have known it was a young woman. She was wearing a coat which had a hood attached to it and was walking with her head down.
‘It’s this blinkin’ blackout.’ Seeing her shrink back, he tried to reassure her. ‘You never see anything until it’s too late.’
‘I am sorry. It was my fault.’ Breathless from haste, she spoke with a foreign accent. ‘I should have looked where I was going.’
The face beneath the hood was a white blur. Bert noticed she had a bag in each hand.
‘Bitter night,’ he remarked, drawing his own coat closer about him, resettling the helmet on his head.
‘Yes, isn’t it?’ The relief in her voice made him wonder if she’d felt nervous walking through the blackout on her own. She’d put down one of her bags for a moment, and he saw now that in fact it was a basket, heavily laden, its contents covered by a cloth. He tested its weight and then held it ready for her while she wiggled her fingers to get the circulation back.
‘Thank you so much.’ She took the basket from him.
‘I hope you haven’t far to go with those.’ He nodded at her burdens.
‘No, it’s only a short walk.’
‘I’ll give you a hand if you like.’
She looked over her shoulder. ‘No, really. It’s not necessary. ’ He caught a glimpse of her smile in the shadow cast by the hood. ‘Goodnight, and thank you for your help.’
She plodded on, and as he watched her figure disappearing into the darkness Bert wondered if he shouldn’t have insisted. She seemed like a nice girl. But his bones ached from the cold and whatever faint impulse he felt to follow her faded at the thought of the hot cup of tea awaiting him.
She would manage, he told himself as her figure grew faint and then vanished in the darkness.
She hadn’t far to go.
Feeling a lot better after his break - the firemen were a friendly lot - Bert hurried down the museum steps into the buffeting wind and then tacked his way across the great forecourt like a ship under sail. The sirens he’d heard earlier hadn’t sounded again. He was ready to call it a night. But while sitting in the warmth inside he’d felt the prick of conscience, and instead of going home directly as he’d planned he’d decided to return to where he’d interrupted his round earlier and make a final inspection of his area.
Pausing only to adjust his shoulder bag, he set off briskly down Museum Street, using the road itself, rather than the pavement. Although the blackout restrictions had been relaxed in recent weeks - in some districts of the capital, street lamps were now permitted to show a glimmer of light, creating what was called a moonlight effect - inky darkness continued to prevail in many areas, and if you wanted to avoid barking your shins on unseen obstacles, or, even worse, collecting a black eye from walking into a lamp-post, it was best to keep to the middle of the street.
Bert had barely turned the corner and started down Little Russell Street, however, when he heard the sound of a car behind him. Looking back he saw its reduced headlights approaching, and moved off the roadway to give it passage. It went by slowly, the driver steering his vehicle carefully down the dark canyon created by the buildings on either side of the narrow street. Bert continued to walk along the pavement. He was keeping an eye on the car, ready to move back on to the road at the first opportunity, but before he had a chance to do so his foot caught on something and he tripped and fell headlong.
‘Bloody ’ell!’ Half-winded by the fall, he lay where he was for a moment, collecting his wits. ‘What in the name of . . .? ’
Lifting himself up on one elbow he peered behind him. The darkness seemed impenetrable. But there was something there all right. He could feel it when he pushed his foot back; an obstruction of some kind. Bert levered himself into a sitting position. His shoulder bag had come off, but he quickly located it by feeling around in the dark, and having got the straps unbuckled his questing fingers found the torch which he carried inside it. He switched on the light.
The whispered exclamation was involuntary. Revealed by the wavering beam, a pair of legs was protruding on to the pavement. They belonged to a woman, there was no doubt of that. Bert could see a knee-length skirt beneath the coat which the sprawled figure was wearing. He shifted the light. His hand was shaking.
‘Ah, no . . . !’
He recognized the figure: it was the young girl he’d bumped into earlier. Her pale face was clearly visible now that the hood she’d been wearing had been dragged clear of her head. Bert could see the basket she’d been carrying lying beside her. It had tipped over and he caught a glimpse of some strewn apples and the remains of what looked like broken eggs. Although he knew instinctively that she was dead, he stirred himself to scramble to his knees and reach for her wrist, which lay close to him, the hand beneath it clenched. He found no pulse.
‘Poor lass . . .’
Fumbling in the pocket of his overalls, Bert got hold of his police whistle, and as the wind gathered in strength, ascending to a high keening note not unlike a howl of grief, he blew a long blast on it. Then another . . . and another, piercing the enveloping blackness around him with its urgent summons.
‘SHE WAS MURDERED all right, sir. There’s no doubt of that. A possible strangulation. It seems an air-raid warden stumbled on the body. The first officer on the scene was a woman police constable. She was passing by and heard him blow his whistle. Bow Street has some men examining the site now. Because of the blackout, they weren’t able to do it properly last night.’
Chief Inspector Angus Sinclair shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He’d spent a sleepless night, disturbed by the buffeting wind and also by an attack of gout, a malady that had begun to plague him in recent years. As Bennett watched he lifted one foot off the floor and set it down gently. Aware that the subject was a sensitive one so far as his colleague was concerned, the assistant commissioner kept a tactful silence.
Sinclair squinted at the page he was reading from. ‘We don’t have a name as yet,’ he said. ‘But she appears to be in her early twenties and . . . er . . . respectable.’ He frowned at his own choice of word.
‘Not a prostitute, then.’ Bennett nodded. Thanks to the blackout, assaults after dark had become commonplace in London. Streetwalkers, in particular, had suffered in the upsurge of violence which the war years had brought to the capital. ‘Do we know why she was killed?’
‘Not as yet, sir. Bow Street rang in with this information overnight. They’re sending other details over by hand. I expect to hear from them quite soon.’
Bennett grunted. ‘What else?’ He gestured towards the typed sheets held together by a paper clip which Sinclair had laid on his knee. A summary of all crimes reported in the Metropolitan area during the preceding twenty-four hours, it was delivered to the chief inspector’s desk each day in time for their morning conference, which took place in Bennett’s office overlooking the Thames embankment.
‘Just the usual. Balham organized a raid on a premises in Brixton last night. Two printing presses were seized. They were being used to turn out fake identity cards and ration documents. No arrests as yet.’ The chief inspector paused. ‘And we’ve had another report of looting in Stepney. They took a pounding over the weekend. Two V-2s came down in the district. The police are trying to keep an eye on damaged houses, but the looters slip in at night.’
‘I want them caught.’ Bennett’s face darkened. ‘Put the word out. If more men are needed, we’ll find them.’ In common with most policemen, he regarded looting as a particularly loathsome crime. It was taking advantage of others’ misfortunes in the worst possible way and offenders could look for no mercy from the courts.
‘One bright spot, if you can call it that.’ Sinclair glanced up. ‘The Stockwell police stopped a lorry they thought was suspicious in the early hours. It turned out to be filled with frozen carcasses of beef. Fresh from the Argentine, I’ve no doubt.’ The chief inspector lifted a grizzled eyebrow. ‘Two men were arrested. They’re still being questioned.’
‘It could be that hijacking gang we’ve been after.’ The assistant commissioner tried to sound optimistic. ‘Perhaps they’ll lead us to the rest.’
‘We can always hope,’ Sinclair agreed, though without much conviction. ‘So far all they’ve said is they were offered a tenner each by a man they’d never met before to drive the lorry to London. I doubt they’ll change their story.’
He brooded on his words. Five years of war had brought a new dimension to lawbreaking, one which had stretched police resources to their limits. The thicket of regulations designed to control the distribution of food and other scarce resources issued by the government at the start of the conflict had opened fresh avenues for the criminal world, and it gave the chief inspector little satisfaction to know that several of the capital’s most dangerous gangs, formerly employed in the business of extortion and notorious before the war for their violent conduct at race meetings, had long since moved into new spheres of activity linked to the flourishing black market. Even worse, the virus had spread to the general population. Prompted by shortages and driven beyond endurance by the tendency of authority to poke its nose into every corner of life, ordinarily decent citizens now broke laws they no longer respected without compunction, taxing the police still further.
The telephone on Bennett’s desk rang and the assistant commissioner picked it up. While he was speaking, Sinclair allowed his gaze to stray to the windows, where a sky the colour of dishwater could be glimpsed through panes criss crossed with tape to minimize bomb blast. Try as he might, he could no longer bring the same passion to his work he had once felt. In truth, he found it only a burden now, a duty he accepted as necessary for the good of the force he had served for half a century, but one he could hardly wait to relinquish. The mortal struggle which his country had been engaged in these past five years had demanded sacrifices from all, and Sinclair’s own contribution had been to defer his plans for retirement, already in place when war had broken out, and answer the appeal which had come from Bennett’s own lips.
‘Angus, I need you. This war will be fought to the death, and it won’t be over by Christmas.’ This had been in late 1939, following the German invasion of Poland and before its assault on France, when peace had still seemed a possibility to some. ‘The Metropolitan Police will suffer along with everyone else. We’re already losing men to the forces and no fresh recruiting will be allowed until the fighting’s over. It won’t be long before we feel the pinch.’
Unable to refuse the request, or deny the necessity behind it, Sinclair had agreed to stay on, but with a sinking heart. By refusing several offers of promotion and clinging to his rank as chief inspector he had managed to prolong his career as an investigator beyond its normal span. His name was associated with some of Scotland Yard’s most famous cases and his reputation, particularly among the younger detectives at the Yard, was close to legendary. But as he well knew, those days were over: he had turned seventy; it was time to retire gracefully and leave the world to others to bustle in.
The post he held now as special assistant to Bennett gave him supervisory authority over all criminal investigations, but no active role in them. With it had come yet another offer of promotion, to the rank of superintendent. As the assistant commissioner himself had pointed out, it might seem anomalous for a mere chief inspector to give direction to officers senior to himself. But at that point Sinclair had dug in his heels. Before the Met’s plainclothes staff had been expanded in the years leading up to the war he had been one of only four chief inspectors on the Yard’s strength, men who had been seen as an elite group, specialists assigned to handle only the most difficult cases. He had been proud of the distinction he’d earned, and the fact that there were now a round dozen men holding the same rank was neither here nor there to Angus Sinclair.
‘I prefer to remain as I am, sir. And since I’ll be speaking in your name, I don’t imagine I’ll encounter any problems.’
Left unsaid by him was the fact that many of those promoted above him had learned their trade at his hands and it had become commonplace at the Yard to refer to him simply as ‘the chief inspector’ without further identification.
Beached at last, a slave to paperwork, to somehow making ends meet, Sinclair had quickly discovered the truth of the assistant commissioner’s prophetic words. If the Yard had felt the pinch of war at the outset, it was now close to being trapped in a straitjacket of diminished resources. The Met’s prewar strength of 19,500 had shrunk to a mere 12,000, and while the situation had been alleviated somewhat by the use of auxiliaries known as Specials, it had coincided with a sharp rise in crime. As though in response to some Malthusian principle, lawbreaking had increased in proportion to the number of laws added to the statute book. (Issued under the all-embracing Defence Regulations, there’d been no end of them.) Far too many policemen were engaged in pursuing petty offences, wasting both their own and the courts’ time, adding to the store of national irritation and impatience with authority. It had been the chief inspector’s aim throughout the war to counter this trend towards the trivial, to keep the plainclothes branch insulated from it as much as possible and engaged in the fight against genuine crime. But it was a battle he could never win entirely and the effort had exhausted him.
Nor was he alone in his suffering, Sinclair reflected, as he watched Bennett, who was saying little but still had the receiver pressed to his ear, stifle a yawn. As assistant commissioner, crime, Sir Wilfred was responsible for all CID operations in the Metropolitan area, a position he had held for many years and one that now hung like an albatross around his neck. Indeed, if the chief inspector sometimes mourned his own decline into bureaucratic impotence, he was able to spare more than a thought for his superior, who had nursed the ambition, even the hope, that he might one day ascend to the commissionership. The summons had never come. Throughout Bennett’s career the government had continued its tradition of appointing a senior member of the armed forces to the post. (The present incumbent was an air vice-marshal.) And now that he, too, was preparing to retire - he’d already made it known that he was only waiting, like others, for the war to end before offering his resignation - he’d been forced to swallow a final irony. Word had come down from on high that the authorities had decided to make a break with the past: once hostilities were ended a new commissioner would be named, a civilian appointee.
The call over at last, Bennett replaced the telephone receiver in its cradle. He removed his reading glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. A slight, vital figure in his younger days, he had begun to put on weight lately and his dark hair, never abundant, was thinning to the point where what little of it remained barely covered his pale scalp.
‘Well, Angus? Is there anything else?’
‘Not for the moment, sir.’ With an effort Sinclair brought his mind back to the business in hand. ‘Apart from this murdered girl, of course.’
‘What do you plan to do?’ The assistant commissioner frowned. ‘Will you make it a Yard investigation?’ He was referring to a state of affairs relatively new in the capital, where in the past most serious crimes had been assigned as a matter of course to detectives stationed at the Yard, but where now, thanks to staff shortages, more cases were being farmed out to the various divisions.
‘No, I don’t think so, sir.’ The chief inspector began to gather his papers. ‘It sounds straightforward enough. Of course, it depends . . .’
He was interrupted by a knock on the door, which opened. Bennett’s secretary put her head in. ‘Excuse me, sir. I’ve just had a call from registry. They’ve received some information from Bow Street which Mr Sinclair is waiting for.’ She glanced at the chief inspector. ‘It’s a woman’s name and address.’
‘Come in, Miss Ellis.’ Bennett gestured her forward and took the sheet of paper she was carrying from her hand. Slipping a pair of spectacles on, he studied it for a few moments.
‘She’s a land girl, I see. A Polish refugee.’ He slid the piece of paper across the desk to Sinclair. ‘You can bring in my letters now, Miss Ellis. And a cup of tea, if you would . . .’ Bennett went on speaking to his secretary, but stopped when he saw the look of astonishment on the chief inspector’s face.
‘Angus . . .? ’
Sinclair seemed not to have heard. He was staring at the piece of paper in his hand.
‘What is it, man?’
‘I’m sorry, sir.’ The chief inspector collected himself. ‘It’s this young woman who was murdered. I know her. Or of her, rather . . .’
‘Are you sure? A land girl?’ Bennett seemed unconvinced. ‘Couldn’t it be someone with the same name? What was it again? Rosa . . . Rosa something . . .? ’
‘Rosa Nowak. No there’s no mistake.’ The chief inspector glanced across at his superior. ‘You didn’t notice her address, sir? The farm where she was working? The name of her employer . . .? ’
Wordlessly he passed the message back to Bennett, who peered at it through his spectacles for a moment, then shook his head in amazement.
‘Well, I’ll be damned,’ he said.
‘JOHN MADDEN?’ Lofty Cook looked sceptical. ‘I saw the name, of course, but it didn’t ring a bell. Are you sure it’s the same bloke?’
‘It’s him all right.’
‘Your old guv’nor?’
Billy Styles chuckled. He’d just had a flash of memory: himself as a callow young detective-constable, pink-cheeked, and with a waistline that was now only a memory. And of the man he’d been assigned to then. All of twenty years ago it was now.
‘I’d hardly call him that,’ he said. ‘We only worked together the one time and I was wet behind the ears.’
‘Still, he gave you your chance, didn’t he? Melling Lodge! What a case to kick off with. But then you always were a lucky devil.’ Cook glanced down at his colleague, grinning. Recently promoted to detective-inspector, he stood a couple of inches over six feet and was called Lofty by his pals, of whom Billy was one. They had joined the force at the same time, right after the last war, but though Billy had advanced more quickly - he’d been an inspector for half a dozen years now - it hadn’t affected their friendship, and Billy had been pleased to see his old chum’s familiar hatchet face split by a grin when he’d climbed out of the radio car that had brought him from the Embankment up to Bloomsbury.
Although the gale had abated overnight, its icy claws could still be felt gusting down the narrow street and the pair of them had taken refuge in the doorway of a stationer’s shop. Across the road from where they were standing, two detectives from Bow Street were busy searching the spot where the young woman’s body had been found. The area, marked with tape, lay at the edge of a small unfenced yard that backed on to a bomb site, a building that had taken a direct hit at some time in the past and was now, like countless other tracts of ground all over London, a gutted ruin. An assortment of debris had been piled up in the cramped, cobbled space - bricks, mortar, sections of plastered wall - and the corpse had apparently been left on the fringe of this refuse, with the legs protruding on to the pavement.
‘What happened to Madden, then?’ Cook asked. He offered Billy a cigarette from his packet of Woodbines. ‘After Melling Lodge, I mean? After he quit the force?’
‘He got married to a lady he met while he was on the case. She was the village doctor.’
‘Must have been something special,’ Lofty observed. Cupping his hand, he struck a match and lit their cigarettes.
‘Special . . .? ’ Billy considered the remark, drawing on his fag. ‘Yes, I reckon you could say that.’ He smiled to himself. ‘Anyway, he bought a farm down there, Madden did. Same farm where this girl was working. Which explains why I’m here. The chief inspector wants the full story. He and Madden are old friends.’
‘Fair enough.’ Cook pursed his lips, exhaling a plume of tobacco smoke into the frosty air. ‘But there’s not that much to tell. A case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, if you ask me.’
It was an opinion Billy had already heard voiced, and by the chief inspector himself when he’d been summoned to his office not half an hour earlier.
‘Odds on it was a casual assault, a crime of chance.’ Sinclair had shown him the initial Bow Street report. ‘I’ve just spoken to John. The girl had only been with them for two months. She’d been given the weekend off and come up to London to see her aunt. Find out what you can. But don’t spend too much time on it. Just determine the facts and report back.’
The chief inspector had not thought it necessary to refer to the case Billy had been working on, a tortuous investigation into the sale by a black-market ring of petrol and heating fuels stolen from military depots, which had ended only the week before in a successful prosecution; nor the few days’ leave he’d been promised. With the shortage of staff that had prevailed for several years now, detectives were expected to put aside their personal lives as and when occasion demanded it.
‘And just so you’re clear in your mind, I’m not looking for an excuse to take this off Bow Street’s hands. We’ve enough on our plate as it is. Just see to it there are no loose ends.’
These last words had been spoken with a scowl, as though his listener was known to be contemplating just such an outrage, from which Billy, armed with his sleuth’s intuition, had deduced that the old boy’s gout must be playing up. In spite of his awesome reputation, the chief inspector had his critics at the Yard and the suggestion had been made in more than one quarter that it was time he was put out to pasture. Billy, though, would have none of it. Having come under Sinclair’s eye early in his career, and in circumstances where his inexperience might have cost him dear, he had never forgotten how the chief inspector, for all the sharpness of his tongue, had forgiven him his mistakes. And allowed him to profit from them.
He’d been more than content, too, with the orders he’d been given, particularly when he’d found out who was in charge at Little Russell Street. The Yard’s habit of interfering in other divisions’ business, of keeping plum cases for themselves, was often a sore point and he was glad he could tell Lofty that the investigation was still his to conduct. Given the rawness of the morning, neither of them had been disposed to dally and Cook had quickly shepherded him to the shelter of the stationer’s doorway, where Billy learned that the body of Rosa Nowak had been removed to the mortuary at Paddington overnight after the pathologist called to the scene had examined it by torchlight.
‘Who was the sawbones?’ he asked.
‘Ransom, from St Mary’s. He thought it most likely she was strangled but said he’d give us a definite opinion later today after he’s had her on the slab.’ Cook stamped his feet to keep warm. ‘It took us a while to discover who she was. We didn’t find her wallet until it was light.’ He nodded towards the two plainclothes men who were busy searching the rubble. ‘She must have been carrying it in that basket.’ He pointed to the object which was lying tipped over beside the white silhouette formed by the tape. Billy could see some apples lying loose there, mingled with the remains of broken eggshells. ‘The wallet ended up under a piece of corrugated iron. It had her identity card inside.’
‘What’s your opinion, Lofty? Do you think it was a sexual assault?’
‘Looks that way to me.’ The Bow Street inspector nodded. ‘She was lying on her back when we found her. Mind you, I don’t think he got very far. Her coat was still buttoned up when we found her. It occurred to me he might have killed her by mistake.’
‘Oh . . .? ’ Billy lifted an eyebrow.
‘Squeezed too hard, maybe. Then run off when he realized he’d topped her.’ Cook shrugged. ‘But that’s only a guess.’
‘I read it was a WPC who got here first.’
‘That’s right. Name of Poole. Lily Poole.’ Cook grinned. ‘She’s stationed at Bow Street. Keen as mustard. She was walking back to the station after her shift when she heard the warden blowing his whistle and came over here to see what all the fuss was about. Didn’t waste any time, either. Went straight up to Great Russell Street - there’s a police call box there - and rang the station. By the time I got here she was already knocking on doors. But it didn’t do any good. This isn’t a residential street. Just shops and businesses. We spoke to one or two people who’d heard the warden’s whistle, but nobody who saw anything.’
‘Do we know when she was killed?’
‘Almost to the minute. It was a little after ten o’clock. That’s thanks to the warden. Name of Cotter. He’d bumped into her earlier. They had a chat. The last he saw of her she was walking down the street from that corner.’ Cook pointed to his right. ‘Twenty minutes later he came back - he was on his way home - and he tripped over the body.’
Billy nodded, taking it all in. He waited while a group of women dressed in dun-coloured overalls under their coats, and with their hair tied up in scarves or handkerchiefs, went by. They were trailed by a pair of WAAFs, who craned their necks to look at the two detectives bent double in the yard and at the uniformed constable who was standing guard there.
‘Maybe all he meant to do was rob her?’ he suggested.
‘I thought of that. But it doesn’t seem likely.’ Cook blew on his fingers. ‘Her wallet may have disappeared when she dropped her basket. But he didn’t go through her things.’ He gestured at a suitcase bound with cord that was lying on the pavement beside the yard.
‘I understand she was on her way to visit her aunt. Does she live nearby?’
‘Just round the corner, in Montague Street. A Mrs Laski. She’s a widow, quite an elderly lady. Naturalized. Been living here since the Twenties. She’d sat up all night waiting for her niece to arrive, then rang the station this morning. By that time we’d found the girl’s wallet, so I had to take her over to Paddington to identify the body. Poor woman. Rosa was her only family. She got here soon after war broke out, but her parents were still in Poland, and they’re gone now most likely, or so Mrs Laski reckons.’
‘They’re Jewish,’ Cook explained. He caught Billy’s eye.
‘Anyway, she worked for a couple of years in the Polish community, Rosa did. Looking after refugee families, that kind of thing. But she wanted to be in the country - she grew up in a village - so she joined the Land Army. Her first job was on a farm in Norfolk, but that packed up earlier this year when men invalided out of the services came home looking for work. That’s when she was sent to Surrey. To Mr Madden’s place. This was the first time she’d come up to London. She was planning to spend the weekend with her aunt and then go back on Monday.’
The inspector’s face split in a yawn, and Billy wondered how much sleep he’d been getting. It was a problem everyone faced these days, a sort of national disease. After five years of war, five years of rationing and restrictions, a deep fatigue had settled like snow on the whole population. It could be dangerous, particularly in a job like theirs, his and Lofty’s. It was easy to miss things.
‘What about men friends?’ he asked.
‘None, according to the aunt. When she came here from France at the start of the war she travelled with a Polish boy, but he was just a friend, and anyway he joined up and was killed in North Africa. She was shy with men, Mrs Laski says. Old-fashioned when it came to the opposite sex.’ Cook shrugged.
‘In other words, she wasn’t the sort of girl who would have picked up a man, say. Or let herself be picked up.’
‘Out of the question. Or so her aunt reckons. I put it to her myself. Had to. Anyway, the girl was alone when the warden ran into her. That’s for certain.’
Billy grunted. He trod on his cigarette. ‘Are you done then?’ he called out to the two men who’d been busy in the yard. One was named Hoskins, the other Grace. With more than twenty years on the force, Billy had made the acquaintance of just about every plainclothes man in London at one time or another, and worked with a good many of them.
‘Finished, sir.’ It was Hoskins who replied. Plump, and purple in the face despite the gelid air, he’d been making heavy weather of all the bending required by their task and stood breathing heavily beside the taped barrier that he and his partner had just erected at the edge of the yard with the help of a pair of iron stakes salvaged from the rubble. They were busy decorating it with a police notice on which the words KEEP OUT were printed in large capitals.
‘Let’s see what you’ve got.’
Trailed by Cook, Billy crossed the street and went down on his haunches to examine the objects the pair had retrieved and laid on a strip of cardboard. Besides the apples spilled from the basket they’d found two brown paper parcels, each containing a plucked chicken, three jars of homemade jam and a crock of honey.
‘She must have brought those up from the country,’ Joe Grace remarked. A thin, hard-faced man with the rank of detective-sergeant, he’d been one of a team of which Billy had been a part that the Yard had set up before the war to deal with the smash-and-grab gangs active in the capital at that time. ‘There are two loaves of bread and a round of cheese jammed in at the bottom. We left ’em there.’ He nodded at the basket which still lay beside the taped outline of the body. ‘We also found these.’ He indicated three matched buttons lying separate from the larger items, one of them still with a curl of thread attached to it. ‘They were on the ground, near where her head was. Must have come from her coat.’
‘No, they couldn’t have.’ Cook intervened. ‘The buttons were all done up when we found her. There were none missing.’
‘Where’s it now?’ Billy asked.
‘At the mortuary. She was still wearing it when they took her away.’ He turned to Grace. ‘Is that all?’ he asked.
‘Pretty much.’ The detective shrugged. ‘The rest was just odds and ends.’ He pointed to a handful of items deposited near the edge of the piece of cardboard which included an empty bottle of lemon rum, a broken comb, two hairpins and the chewed stub of a lead pencil, all coated with dust. Completing the haul were four charred matchsticks, which Billy examined with interest. He noticed that although their tops were blackened the stems beneath had hardly been touched by the flame.
‘Looks like someone was trying to strike a match in the wind,’ he remarked. ‘And lately. The wood’s still fresh. There’s no sign of weathering.’ He rose, stretching his cramped leg muscles.
Cook spoke to the two plainclothes men. ‘You can put all this stuff back in the basket and take it to the station. Her suitcase, too. I’ll deal with them later. We’ll have to put up posters in the area. We need to know if anyone saw the girl earlier. Other than the warden, I mean.’ Yawning, he glanced at Billy. ‘Well, what do you think?’
Billy reflected. So far he’d heard nothing to suggest that Lofty wasn’t right in his assessment. It seemed likely the girl had encountered her killer by accident in the darkness of the blackout. If so, it was a crime of chance, just as the chief inspector had supposed. But he wasn’t ready to make his report quite yet. Sinclair’s caution about leaving no loose ends was still fresh in his ears.
‘What about slipping over to Paddington?’ he suggested. ‘I’d like a word with Ransom. He should be done by now.’
The corpse lay on a steel-topped table, hidden from sight except for the head and shoulders, which the orderly on duty in the mortuary had exposed by drawing back the white cloth covering it. Looking down at the lifeless face, so pale it seemed drained of blood, Billy recalled the photograph Lofty had shown him in the car coming over, a snapshot of Rosa Nowak which he’d obtained from her aunt. The dark-haired girl pictured in the snapshot had faced the camera with a remote and sorrowful expression, no trace of which remained now.
‘Well, there she is, poor lass.’
An elderly man, one who’d either been retained like many past retirement age, or volunteered to do what amounted to war work, the orderly offered his opinion unprompted.
‘Hardly looks dead, does she?’
It was true enough, Billy thought. Apart from a swelling on one side of her neck and a faint, livid mark in the same area the girl might have been asleep. As though it only needed a touch to awaken her. Glancing sideways at Cook, he saw the Bow Street inspector bending lower to peer at the white throat.
‘Can’t see that she was choked,’ he remarked.
The two detectives had arrived at the hospital only to discover that the man they’d come to see wasn’t immediately available.
‘Dr Ransom’s busy with another autopsy,’ the receptionist informed them. ‘A buzz bomb came down in Wandsworth last night, but they only dug out the bodies this morning.’
Left to their own devices, they had found their way downstairs to the mortuary, a grisly sanctum whose green-painted walls exuded a clammy cold unaffected by the change of seasons, where the orderly, at their request, had brought out Rosa Nowak’s remains from one of the refrigerators built into the walls of the echoing chamber.
‘You can wait if you like,’ he told them. ‘The doctor should be here any time now.’
Billy had been looking around. ‘Are those her clothes?’ he asked, pointing to a pile of women’s garments on a table in the corner.
The orderly nodded. ‘Dr Ransom said you might want to see them.’
Billy led his colleague over to the table and together they quickly solved the mystery of the loose buttons found at the scene of the murder. Examining the girl’s coat, which was made of dark blue wool and might have had a naval past, they found it was fitted with a removable hood of the same material attached by buttons sewn on to the collar. Only two of these were still in place. Loose cotton threads showed where three others had in all probability been ripped off.
‘I’d forgotten about the hood,’ Cook admitted. ‘We didn’t see it at first. It was hidden beneath her body. I only noticed it when the ambulance men picked her up.’
Other signs of deft needlework were visible on the young woman’s underclothes, which were undamaged but had obviously been darned and patched more than once. The embroidered blouse she’d been wearing, on the other hand, looked new, and to both detectives’ surprise proved to be made of silk.
‘What’s that?’ Billy’s eye had been caught by a saucer standing on a shelf above the table. He took it down.
‘Looks like a matchstick.’ Cook peered at the charred fragment of wood which was all the saucer contained.
‘Wonder what it’s doing there.’ Billy was still examining his find when the swing doors behind them opened and Ransom strode in, thrusting an arm into the sleeve of a white physician’s coat.
‘Sorry to keep you, gentlemen. We’re like the Windmill Theatre here. We never close. I’m afraid there’s another cadaver awaiting my attention, so this’ll have to be brief. Hello, Inspector.’ He nodded to Billy. ‘I didn’t know you were on the case.’
‘I’m not, strictly speaking, sir.’ Billy put down the saucer and went over to shake hands with the pathologist. ‘Mr Cook’s in charge. But the chief inspector has an interest in it. I’m to report back to him.’
‘Sinclair, eh? Then we’d best be on our toes.’
Ransom blew out his cheeks. A heavy-set man with jutting eyebrows, he had a reputation in the Met as a joker, famous for his bons mots.
‘You’ve seen the corpus delicti, I take it.’ He moved over to where the wheeled table stood. The two detectives followed. ‘There was little in the way of injuries to record. I dare say you noted the lividity on her neck and the swelling’ - he pointed to the slight disfigurement on the slender column of the throat. ‘The only real bruises I found were on her knees. She must have gone down when he grabbed her. See . . .’
He pulled the cloth off the girl’s legs, showing the purple marks on her bare kneecaps.
‘But that’s all, really. There was no evidence of a struggle. She didn’t get a chance to fight back. There was no skin under her nails, nothing of that sort. It was quick and clean.’
Billy glanced at Cook, thinking he might want to handle the questioning, but found that his colleague had chosen that moment to fall into a doze. Lofty’s lack of sleep had finally caught up with him; he was swaying on his feet, his eyelids fluttering.
‘No evidence of a struggle, you say?’
‘That’s right, Inspector.’
‘He didn’t sexually assault her, then?’
‘Good heavens, no.’ Ransom frowned. ‘Why on earth . . .? Oh, yes, of course.’ He clicked his tongue. ‘It did look that way last night when we found her. The inspector and I discussed the possibility.’ He nodded at Cook, who’d come awake with a start. ‘I checked for it, of course, when I made my examination, even though her underclothes weren’t disturbed. But she wasn’t touched. Not there, at any rate. In fact, she was virgo intacta. Not that it makes any difference now, I suppose.’ He shrugged.
‘But if he strangled her . . .’
‘Strangled?’ Ransom’s bushy eyebrows rose in exaggerated amazement. ‘Did I say that?’
‘Yes, sir, you did.’ Angry with himself for having drifted off, Cook spoke sharply. ‘Last night, at the murder scene.’
‘Then I apologize. It was a hasty judgement.’ Ransom spread his hands in a gesture of appeasement. ‘Put not your trust in pathologists. Particularly those called out in the blackout and made to examine bodies by torchlight. No, she wasn’t choked. Her neck was broken. It’s clear from the evidence. Let me show you.’ He removed the cloth from the girl’s head and shoulders again. ‘Do you see the swelling on her neck and that mark on the side? It shows that the killer grabbed her from behind, slipped his right arm around her neck and snapped her spinal column. And to anticipate your question, yes, he was a strong man, but it wouldn’t have required any special skill, particularly if she wasn’t expecting it. Just a good wrench of the head. The whole business would have been over in a second.’
He covered the girl’s head and shoulders again and then waited to see if the two detectives had any questions. A frown had appeared on Cook’s face as he’d listened and he caught Billy’s eye.
‘So what you’re saying is, he must have meant to kill her.’
‘It would seem so.’ Ransom shrugged. ‘It’s hard to see what other purpose he could have had in mind.’
‘But . . . but that doesn’t make sense.’ Cook spoke before he could stop himself.
‘Possibly.’ The pathologist looked owlish. ‘But that’s your department, Inspector, not mine. Now, if you’ve no more questions . . .’ He stood poised to leave.
‘One moment, sir.’ Billy spoke up. ‘That matchstick on the shelf over there. The one in the saucer. Where does it come from?’
‘What matchstick where?’ Ransom’s eyes swivelled in the direction of his pointing finger. ‘Oh, that. Yes, I found it tangled in her hair. Blown there by the wind, I dare say. She’d been lying on the ground for some time. Why do you ask?’
‘We found others at the scene. It looked like somebody had been trying to light one.’
‘The killer, do you mean?’ Ransom showed renewed interest.
‘Perhaps. But we can’t be sure.’ Billy glanced at Cook. His jerk of the head suggested it was time they too departed.
‘Yes, but . . . but why would he have done that?’ The pathologist was clearly intrigued by the notion. ‘If it was him, I mean.’
‘I’ve no idea.’ Billy’s shrug was noncommittal. ‘But he may have been looking for something - something he thought she had on her.’
‘SHE WAS A DEAR GIRL, very likeable. But so hard to get to know. Still grieving, I fear.’
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John Madden and his former colleagues solve an epic puzzle of a seemingly random murder of an immigrant land girl on a blacked out street; people who saw her and petty criminals start dropping like flies as the murder attempts to extinguish all witnesses. I hope the series continues for several more books, although he ages Madden (already more than 25y in 3 books).
I happen to enjoy dark, period mysteries and this one was avery well written. This is the third and last (for now) in a series by this author. The first one, River of Darkness, introduces us to the protagonist and other characters during that difficult, and dark, period after WWI. Each book afterwards brings you forward in time and each with a new mystery. This was a new author for me and I hope he has more books waiting in the wings.
This writer is one of the best. I discovered him several years ago and have all of his books including the new one. I have reread the series many times and have given it to others to read also. You will not be disappointed with this series except for wishing he'd written more books!
Rennie Airth's newest mystery, The Dead of Winter, is excellent - and, this time, remarkably free of typos. The story and character are engaging and involving. I liked the way Airth brings his lead character, John Madden, back into play, and the evocation of the wartime environment in London and surrounding areas was beautifully done. I just wish Airth wrote more and faster; I'd like to have a whole shelf or two of Rennie Airth books in my personal library!
This book has it all. A wonderful plot with some unexpected twists, a lot of well-developed and interesting characters, the somber war-time mood of late WWII England. The twists and turns will hold your interest and the chilling ending will have you reading into the late night. Another excellent offering from Rennie Airth. Here's hoping he'll deliver another, and soon.
John Madden helps solve this third mystery by Rennie Airth set during the last days of WWII. A young woman is killed, but the why is the big question and the plot goes on forming a very twisty, interesting story. Highly recommend this wonderful book.
WWII is raging - and bad things still happen on the homefront. I really like the way these books are set up - although I don't understand why the author let 10 years lapse between the settings of each of his books. Once again, John Madden gets pulled into a case through the most curious of "coincidences" - which is a theme of this particular story. It's all a matter of "timing" - of being in a particular place at any given moment. I also enjoy the fact that there are the same supporting cast of characters.
This is my third Rennie Airth novel. Starts out a bit slow but picks up nicely about a third of the way into the book. The first hundred pages or so nicely develope the characters and setting. He makes it easy to feel a part of the story. Finishes with his usual shocking slam bang ending. Love his writing style, and definitely looking forward to his next novel!
Great mysteries, great characters.
love this author. great story line. a true mystery. enjoy