London, June 1940. When the body of silent screen star Mabel Morgan is found impaled on a wrought-iron fence, the coroner rules her death as suicide. Detective Ted Stratton is not convinced and suspects that Morgan's fatal fall may have been the work of one of Soho's most notorious gangsters.
Meanwhile, MI5 agent Diana Calthrop is leading a covert operation when she discovers that her boss is involved in espionage. Only when Stratton's path crosses Diana's does the pair start to uncover the truth. And soon they also begin to realize they like each other a little too much. . . .
About the Author
Laura Wilson is the crime fiction reviewer for the Guardian. Her first novel, A Little Death, was shortlisted for both the CWA Historical Dagger and the Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original; The Lover was shortlisted for two Daggers and won the Prix du Polar Européen du Point. She lives in London, where she is hard at work on the next Ted Stratton thriller.
LAURA WILSON is the crime fiction reviewer for the Guardian. Her first novel, A Little Death, was shortlisted for both the CWA Historical Dagger and the Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original; The Lover was shortlisted for two daggers and won the "Prix du Polar Europeen du Point." She is also the author of The Innocent Spy. She lives in London.
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The Innocent Spy
By Laura Wilson
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2008 Laura Wilson
All rights reserved.
A child saw her first.
June 1940, Fitzrovia: five o'clock, and the sky overcast. The boy, six years old, had been running half-heartedly up and down the empty street, pretending to be an aeroplane, but it wasn't much good without the others. He'd been delighted when his mother came to take him away from the farm, with its pig-faced owner and the huge smelly animals that still chased him, snorting and steaming, through nightmares. His mother, smothering for the first few days, had soon tired of him under her feet and turned him outdoors to play, and three months on, with most of his friends still evacuated and his old school requisitioned by the ARP, he was bored.
He picked up a stick and ran it up and down the iron railings in front of the tall houses, then turned the corner and, sighing, sat down on the kerb and pulled both his socks up, hard.
Raising his head, he saw a sack of something draped over a set of railings further down. It hadn't been there when he'd run down the road after his dinner, he was sure. He dawdled along for a closer look. It wasn't a sack, but a woman, impaled on the sharp black spikes. He stared at her, uncomprehending. Face down, her dress was caught up round her waist, and he could see her drawers. He extended a finger and poked her shoulder. Under the slippery material, she felt scraggy and bony, like the meat his mother sent him to fetch from the butcher's. She seemed to have two lots of hair, one short, brown and stiff looking, on the back of her head, and the other, longer and yellow. This top hair had slipped forwards, hanging down on either side of her face so that he couldn't see what she looked like. He considered this for a moment, then looked down at the pavement, where a number of little round white things were scattered. He picked one up and rolled it between his fingers — hard and shiny. A sweet? He put it in his mouth, sucking first, then testing it against his teeth. It felt slightly rough when he bit it, but tasted of nothing. Spitting it into his palm, he squatted down and peered up at the face between the long yellow curls.
In shadow, upside down, one eye stared back at him. The other was closed — a long, lashless slit like a wound, its outer corner pulled upwards, as if by invisible thread. Then, with a groan, the mouth opened, a black, cavernous O, to swallow him whole.
He screamed. Someone else screamed, too, and for a moment he thought it must be the woman, bent on eating him alive. Then feet pounded towards him, and in a confusion of shouts, gasps and police whistles, an unknown hand pressed his head to an alien bosom. Howling and thrashing in terror, he was carried away down the road, pounding at his rescuer, the single pearl still clutched in his left fist.CHAPTER 2
The barrage balloons were shining in the evening sun. DI Ted Stratton squinted up at them. He felt, as he always did, comforted by their rotund, silvery serenity. Despite everything, he thought — first Norway and Denmark, then Holland, Belgium, and now France, like dominoes — it was hardly a picture of a country at war. For Stratton, the word conjured up bullet-riddled scarecrows sprawled across the wire in No Man's land, even though the Great War had ended too soon for him to be called up, leaving him unable to tell whether he was glad or sorry. That had been his brothers' war; the eldest had died. It had come as a shock to realise that, at thirty-five, and in a reserved occupation, he'd be too old for this war — for the time being, at least. He was fit enough, strong and muscular, but he certainly looked his age; a broken nose and a great deal of night duty had given him a battered, serviceable appearance. In a way, thought Stratton, this war's everybody's, even the nippers'. Terrible that it should have come to this, but exciting, that sense of something happening, of being poised in history, alone, at the very centre of the map, of the world tilting on its axis: shall we be next?
As he passed the sandbags at the hospital entrance, Stratton thought of the rumours he'd heard about the local authorities stockpiling thousands of papier-mâché coffins, and thought: soon.
Middlesex Hospital, emptied the previous September of most of its patients to make room for as yet non-existent air-raid casualties, was still quiet. Stratton's footsteps echoed on the stone stairs as he descended to Dr Byrne's underworld — the mortuary, lavatory-tiled, harshly lit and smelling of decay and chemicals. The pathologist was seated at his desk, writing notes. 'Is this an official visit?'
Stratton shook his head. 'Curiosity.'
'Won't take long, will it?'
'Just a few minutes.' Stratton neither expected nor received the offer of a seat. He'd met Dr Byrne a couple of times, and the man's manner was as chilly as the corpses he filleted. He even looked dead — not cadaverous, but there was something cold and doughy about his pale skin that suggested a freshly washed corpse.
'It's about Miss Morgan.'
'The suicide? Body's at the police mortuary.' Dr Byrne paused to knock out his pipe before shuffling through a stack of papers. 'What do you want to know?' he asked aggressively.
'Isn't it unusual, a woman throwing herself out of a window?'
'No. Women do it. Didn't she leave a note?'
'Worried about the invasion. I've had a couple of them in the past month. Neurotic types.'
'I was wondering about where the body fell. It was the fourth floor, and the area's not that wide ... I was surprised she didn't land further out, in the road.'
Byrne shrugged. 'Depends how she jumped.'
'What about her underclothes?'
'What about them?' Byrne looked at him with distaste.
'Were they clean?'
'I've no idea. She hadn't soiled herself, if that's what you mean.'
'Would you say she took care of herself?'
'She was reasonably clean.' Byrne glanced at his notes. 'Lot of scarring on the face ... Burns. She'd had a skin graft. Not a very good job, by the look of it.' He looked up. 'Lot of paint. Prostitute, was she?'
Stratton tried not to sound as annoyed as he felt. 'I imagine she hoped that heavy cosmetics might hide the scars. As a matter of fact, she'd been in films.'
'There you are, then. Artistic type. Highly strung. As I said, the injuries were quite consistent with the manner of death. Now, if there's nothing else ...'
Stratton marched back upstairs, irritated at the man's way of reducing everyone to a type. Just as well he didn't have to deal with living patients. Stratton wondered if Dr Byrne was married, and then, firmly suppressing an image of him in fumbling coitus atop an equally corpselike wife, went out into the street.
As he strolled back along Savile Row — even after years out of uniform, his internal pacemaker was still set at the regulation 2½mph — Stratton thought about his first suicide, a young man who'd put the muzzle of a gun under his chin and blown most of his head into the walls of his outdoor lav. He remembered the drops of blood falling from the wooden ceiling onto his back and neck as he'd bent over to look, and a larger one on his hand that turned out to be a piece of brain. There'd been chips of skull embedded in the boards all round the toilet, pink and white, like almonds on an iced cake. Stratton had been twenty-five then, the same age as the poor bastard who'd killed himself. They'd found a note saying he was suffering from an incurable disease. Turned out he was homosexual - he'd gone for treatment, but it hadn't worked. Stratton remembered what one of the older coppers had said about it being unusual for a nancy to use a gun. 'They normally do it like women: gas or pills, and clean underwear.' The same officer had told him that the most violent way women did it was with carbolic — 'bloody painful, burns your insides out'. Everything Stratton had seen since had confirmed these rules, until yesterday. Clearly, female jumpers weren't as uncommon as he'd thought, and the underwear was inconclusive ... Nevertheless, the feeling that something wasn't quite right continued to nag at him. Not that there was much he could do, it wasn't his case. It wasn't anybody's. As far as his superiors were concerned, the thing was over and done with.
Stratton breathed in the familiar station smell of soap, disinfectant and typewriter ribbons. Ballard, the young PC who'd dealt with Miss Morgan, was by the desk, admonishing Freddie the Flasher. 'I've got a weak bladder, there's nothing they can do for it, on my life ...' Stratton grinned to himself: there was one in every district. Female exhibitionists, as well — there'd been one at his first posting who'd never closed her curtains when she undressed for bed. Every night at 11.30. Good looking woman, too. He'd watched her several times, a few of them had. Not that he was proud of it, but ...
He waited until Ballard was finished, then nodded at Freddie's retreating back. 'Poor old sod. He can't be having much fun in the blackout.'
'No, sir.' Ballard suppressed a grin.
'You found Miss Morgan, didn't you?'
'Yes, sir.' Ballard grimaced. 'I won't forget her in a hurry, I can tell you.'
'Who was with you?'
'PC 29, sir. Arliss.'
'I see.' Fred Arliss, one of the old, horse-drawn brigade, was so incompetent that 'Arlissing around' had become station slang for ballsing something up. Stratton wondered if Ballard knew this yet, but decided not to enlighten him.
'Did either of you notice anything unusual about her?'
Ballard frowned. 'I don't know if you'd say it was unusual, but there was one thing that did strike me when we moved her — she didn't have her teeth in.'
'No sir. Made me wonder if it wasn't some kind of accident. The window was wide open, not much of a ledge, and if she'd been leaning out ... It's only a thought, sir. It just seemed to me a shame if the coroner said it was a suicide when it wasn't.'
'Certainly rough on the family.'
'She didn't have any relatives, and her husband's dead. Died in a fire. That's how she got the scars on her face. The young chap she lived with told us.'
'Young chap?' Stratton raised his eyebrows.
'Nothing like that, sir.' Ballard reddened. 'He wasn't ... well ... he wasn't normal.'
'A kiss not a handshake, you mean?'
Ballard looked grateful. 'Something like that, sir. It was like talking to a girl.'
'Oh, well ...' Stratton shrugged. 'It takes all sorts. How are you finding it at Beak Street?' Ballard, like most of the young policemen, lived in the section house. Stratton had lived there himself years ago, when he had his first posting at Vine Street. Tiny cubicles, and never enough blankets in the winter. 'Don't suppose it's changed much, has it?'
'I shouldn't think so, sir. Do you remember her, in the films?'
'Can't say I do.'
Stratton thanked Ballard and returned to his desk to shake his head at a heap of paperwork about the Italians they were supposed to be helping to round up for internment. Bloody ridiculous, he thought, staring at the list of names. It came from MI5, and they hadn't screened anybody so, basically, every Gino, Maria and Mario who'd come to Britain after 1919 was for it, even if they had sons or brothers serving in the army. Not to mention attacks on Italian businesses ... Admittedly, it was an easy way to get rid of some of the gangs, although, with the Sabini Brothers safely out of the way, the Yiddishers and the Malts would have the run of Soho, which would mean shifting alliances — accompanied by a fair bit of violence — until everyone settled down again. Not that the Jews were having an easy time of it, either. Stratton sighed. It wasn't the criminals he felt sorry for, it was the poor bastards who were trying to make an honest living and getting bricks chucked through their windows. Not to mention all the stories in the papers about Jews profiteering and evading the call up.
He tried to concentrate, but the missing teeth bothered him. Byrne hadn't thought to mention it. But if Mabel Morgan had painted her face, why hadn't she put in her teeth? Surely that would come first. Stratton had his own teeth, and he'd never tried applying lipstick, but it had to be easier with them than without them. He tried to shrug the problem away, but it kept coming back. On the way home, he made a mental note to ask his wife if she remembered Mabel Morgan. Women were better at things like that.CHAPTER 3
Joe Vincent stood at the window of his flat and scrubbed Mabel's teeth with a nailbrush. He'd tried using her toothbrush, but the dentures were coated in a grey, slightly furry accretion that the softer bristles couldn't shift. He wasn't really surprised; they'd never been immersed in any liquid other than water – and saliva – and she'd always been lazy about cleaning them. The work did not disgust him; he was grateful to be able to perform a last, small task for her. He'd spent most of the day staring at her things, unable to believe that she wasn't coming back.
He gave the teeth a final swill in the bowl and laid them out to dry on a sheet of newspaper. Why hadn't she been wearing them? And why not the fox fur jacket? She'd told him once that she wanted to be buried in it – 'Unless you can lay your hands on a mink, dear.' They'd told him at the hospital it was suicide, but he couldn't believe it. He hadn't seen her in the morning – she liked to sleep late – but the night before, when he'd gone to the pub after his shift at the cinema to escort her home through the blackout, she'd been fine. Tight, as usual, but quite happy, reminiscing about her days on the set with Gertie and Bertie, the child stars known as the Terrible Twins ('I wanted to strangle the little bastards, dear. We all did.'). He knew she had a habit of leaning out of the front window and throwing her keys to her few visitors to save walking down the four flights of stairs, but if she'd toppled out doing that, someone would have seen her – unless she'd just thought she'd heard someone and leant out too far trying to see who it was ... The window'd been wide open when he got back and there was no guard-rail, so it was possible. But then, why were her keys still in her handbag? All the same, it must have been an accident. She'd be the last person to take her own life, he was sure. There'd be an inquest ... The thought of a suicide verdict was unbearable; surely they'd let him say something? After all, he'd known her best.
At least she'd been wearing her wig. Her real hair had been doused so many times with chemicals that it had snapped off and had to be cut short. They hadn't thought to straighten the wig at the hospital – she'd been lying there with it cocked over one eye. He'd adjusted it as best he could without causing her further pain, and sat holding her hand, numb with shock. Then he'd heard her whisper, 'Joe ...' She'd died after that. He'd asked the nurses whether she'd said anything else, but if she had, none of them had heard it.
He looked down at the railings below, then drew back, feeling nauseous, trying to wipe away the image of her stomach impacting on the deadly spikes, the lethal prongs spearing her flesh and puncturing vital organs.
He wandered back to Mabel's room, took a framed photograph from the mantelpiece and blew on it to get rid of the dust. Huge, wistful eyes, rippling blonde hair (still, at that time, her own), a heart-shaped face and a rosebud mouth: sheer beauty. It was taken in 1920, when she'd come third in the Picturegoer survey for the 'Greatest British Film Player', before the fire that scarred her, and before the work dried up, leaving her, by the time of their meeting in 1937, almost destitute. Joe had been just six in 1920, but his aunt Edna, who'd brought him up, had been an avid picturegoer and had taken him and his sister Beryl to see everything. Beryl had longed to be an actress, but she didn't have the looks. Joe had got those; eyelashes wasted on a boy, Auntie Edna had always said, and as handsome as they come. She'd been pleased when he became a projectionist – it got her a weekly free seat at the Tivoli, where he worked – although she'd fantasised about him being up on the screen.
He sat down in the rumpled wreckage of Mabel's bed, clutching the photograph. He hadn't known about the scars until he'd met her. Her career had been over for several years before the fire that had marked her face and killed her director husband, and she was already forgotten. He'd read about how she'd been discovered, aged eighteen, in 1911, but he'd been shocked the first time he'd heard her speak: a Cockney accent, not far off his own. 'They wouldn't have me in the talkies, dear. I couldn't do it. They wanted people from the stage, who could speak right.'
Excerpted from The Innocent Spy by Laura Wilson. Copyright © 2008 Laura Wilson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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