Rose and Antonia were WAAF plotters during World War II, enjoying independence, a fulfilling and challenging job, and all the fun of being two women on an RAF base. But peacetime is a disappointment. Rose’s war-hero husband has become violent, and Antonia, bored with her rich manufacturer husband, wants to move to America with her lover. A chance encounter in the street leads to a ruthless scheme, and if Rose doesn’t lose her nerve, they could get away with murder.
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On the Edge
By Peter Lovesey
SOHOCopyright © 1989 Peter Lovesey Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSmiling serenely in the September sun, Rose Bell strolled along Regent Street. Mentally she was miles away, having her husband neutered like the cat. So she ignored the woman who rushed out of Swan & Edgar's making a beeline for the kerb to hail a taxi.
The woman stopped suddenly and spun around.
'Hey, when did they let you out?'
Rose blinked. She registered that the woman was blonde and about her own age. A mink coat was slung casually over her shoulders. It was in beautiful condition, practically screaming out to be touched. Their eyes locked.
Rose thought, I know her, but who is she?
Penetrating eyes. Intense green. Jungle green.
The service nickname struck an odd note in peacetime 1946, but those eyes were unmistakable. In Fighter Command they'd started more scrambles than the siren.
'I can't believe it!'
Antonia came right up to her and grasped her arm.
'We've got to sit down and talk, darling. We can't just pass each other in the street.'
The first place they could find was the Black and White Milk Bar in Coventry Street. They perched on high stools under the strip lighting.
'It must be five years, at least.'
'We were all completely mad.'
'We had to be.'
Antonia snapped open a gold cigarettecase.
'Forgive me, darling, I spotted you straight away, but your name escapes me.'
'Of course! Rose - don't tell me - Mason.'
'Not any longer.'
As Rose reached for the cigarette, Antonia leaned forward, fixed those disturbing eyes on her and lightly ran her finger down the back of her hand towards the wedding ring. 'Was it the man ... or the money ... or both?'
'Still smoking Abdullahs, then?'
'That's dodging the question.'
'Do you have a light?'
'Of course.' Antonia's eyes strayed to an army officer walking past the window. 'Kids?'
'Nor me, touch wood. They're a tie, aren't they?' She produced a gold lighter and held the flame to each cigarette. 'God, this street has lost its charm. You couldn't move for GIs a year ago.'
Rose took a deep draught of smoke and immediately exhaled.
'In a hurry?'
'Where were you going?'
'I heard there was a queue at Lilley & Skinner's. It was a mile long.'
'What were they like?'
'The shoes? Quite dinky. Platforms with ankle-straps. I couldn't have afforded them anyway.'
'With legs like yours you should have heels three inches high.'
'These?' Rose straightened them and looked. 'You always said potty things, Antonia, but you're a tonic.'
'They were the talk of 651 Squadron, and you know it.'
'Get away, if I'd known that, I'd have really larked around.'
Antonia's eyes shone with amusement. Creases appeared at the ends of her mouth.
It was infectious. Rose started to giggle. She had to hold on to the counter to steady herself.
When two women laugh together, really laugh, nothing else matters. The rest of the world was switched off like the wireless.
'I don't know why you're laughing. You were no angel.'
'My contribution to the war effort.'
This started them off again. They took ages to subside and then Antonia made the effort to string together some intelligible words.
'Gorgeous men. I'd love to know what happened to them - the ones who came back, I mean. Rex Ballard, Johnny Dalton-Smith ...'
'He was nice.'
'... and that Wing Commander who couldn't keep his hands to himself. What was his name, for heaven's sake? You remember. What a wolf! Wicked black moustache and so much brilliantine it made your eyes water. Barry someone.'
'Yes! Barry Bell. Run like hell, it's Barry Bell - remember?'
'God knows how he ended up.'
'Married to me.'
'Darling, are you serious? You are.'
Rose nodded. 'After the Battle of Britain I was posted to Hornchurch. They wanted someone who could drive.'
'It's coming back to me. Didn't we give you a rather special send-off? It was you, wasn't it, when we all got drunk as skunks and tied your bed to the CO's staff car?'
'And didn't even tell me, rotten lot.'
'You were out to the world, sweetie. Go on, what happened at Hornchurch?'
'When I reported to the adjutant, who do you think was the first fellow I met?'
'No - really?'
'If you remember, I was about the only girl he ignored at Kettlesham Heath apart from Peggy the fat one in the NAAFI, but he said there was a reason. He said he'd been dying to ask me out and couldn't bring himself to the point.'
'Because he was worried sick that I'd refuse.'
Antonia's eyes grew improbably wide. 'Barry?'
'That's what he said.'
'He worshipped you from afar? Barry? I don't mean to be personal, sweetie, but-'
'I know. I fell for it. The blue eyes, the Charles Boyer voice, the uniform, the DFC, the letter he left behind in case he was shot down. I suppose you had one, too.'
'At least you got him to the altar, which is more than the rest of us managed. How did you pull it off, or shouldn't I ask?'
'By holding out. I just said no.'
'We were married during the Blitz. December, 1940. Me in parachute silk and Barry in full dress uniform complete with white gloves and sword. The next afternoon he was in a dogfight over the Channel. The funny thing is, I didn't mind. I thought it was the height of glamour being married to a fighter pilot. Well, it was. I adored it.'
'Weren't you afraid?'
'Of what? A telephone call? Of course, but that's something the plucky little woman had to accept in wartime, didn't she?'
Antonia put her hand to her mouth.
'He wasn't ...?'
'Killed in action? No. Not Barry. He came through without a scratch.'
'And you're still happily married?'
Antonia inhaled on her cigarette and gave Rose a long speculative look.
'He was demobbed last February.'
'He's in the civil service. The Stationery Office. A distribution officer. Sounds impressive, but he's only a clerk in reality.'
'I can't picture Barry as a civil servant.'
'It is quite a transformation. You should see him go off each day with his bowler hat and briefcase.'
'He was such an outgoing chap.'
'You mean no girl was safe with him. He hasn't altered in that respect.'
'It hasn't worked out?'
'It's a mess.'
'I'm sorry, darling. Will you ...?'
'Divorce him? I couldn't face a divorce at the moment. It would break Daddy's heart.'
'But it's your life.'
'Daddy married us in his own church, heard the vows, gave us the blessing.'
Antonia pointed a finger. 'Your pa was a vicar. I remember now!'
Rose had started talking about herself to show she was friendly and now all this had gushed out. It was embarrassing. She needed to broaden the conversation. 'I sometimes wish the war had never ended, don't you?'
'We're no better off, if that's what you mean.'
Rose ran her eyes over the mink. 'Aren't we?'
Antonia dismissed that with a shrug. 'I mean the bloody shortages. What happened to domestic servants? You can't get one for love nor money.'
Rose smiled. 'I haven't tried.'
'Take rationing, then. I couldn't run my car to the end of the street on the petrol they allow you.' Antonia said all this with a straight face. She looked at the cigarette in her hand. 'And the things you have to do for a smoke.'
'You've got a car?'
'Who on earth did you marry - a duke?'
Antonia flicked off some ash. 'You wouldn't know him. Hector wasn't one of our crowd. He wasn't in the services. Reserved occupation. Do you know that air-raid shelter in Chelsea near the Five Bells? We both ducked in there when a V-1 was overhead. It exploded while we were still halfway down the steps and I grabbed him.' She grinned. 'I felt better pressed up to his wallet.'
Rose giggled. She'd always found Antonia fun and admired her nerve. She'd never listened to the jealous WAAFs who lost their men to her.
'Did it take long?'
'April. We had to wait for his wife to die.'
'Was she an invalid?'
'Maudie? No. She drowned.'
Rose caught her breath. The non sequitur, tossed out so casually, perplexed her. She couldn't think what to say next. It would have been in bad taste to press for more information, and Antonia didn't volunteer any.
Antonia blew out a thin shaft of smoke and coolly took up the conversation.
'So you and I end up like this.'
'Two bored housewives wishing we were back in the filter room at Kettlesham Heath.'
'I don't know about that. It was no picnic. Night duty. Those beastly earphones. Bending over the map to get our plots down. I don't know which was worse, the earache or the backache.'
'Think of the compensations - the boys in the gallery.'
'Don't! I daydream far too much.'
'Listen, Rose, I've got to go in a tick. Why don't we do this again?'
'Oh, I don't know if I can.'
'But you'd like to?'
'So we will.'
Antonia took a taxi to Knightsbridge and let herself into a first-floor flat in Basil Street, behind Harrods. A man's voice called from the end of a red-carpeted passage.
'Just had some.'
'Someone I happened to meet in Piccadilly.'
He appeared at the door, Italian in looks, but taller than most Italians.
'One of the WAAFs I knew in the war. We used to push metal arrows around an enormous map.'
Antonia tossed the mink over a satin-cushioned chair.
'Her name is Rose.'
'Simmer down, man. As a matter of fact she is quite pretty in a pure-bred English way. Soft brown hair in natural curls. Wonderful skin. Bright eyes with long lashes. She'd have made a very presentable deb in her day. I can see her looking out at me from the pages of the Tatler. Have I put you off yet?'
'Totally and utterly.'
'Will you see her again?'
'Two plotters with nothing left to plot.'
'Not necessarily. What's the time now?'
'Nearly half past four. Thinking about your husband?'
'Vic darling, don't make me laugh.'
She started unbuttoning her blouse.
Chapter TwoRose stood by the kitchen table in her apron waiting for her husband to get up from his armchair. The Evening Standard was full of murder again and Barry was lapping up every word. He'd followed each day of the trial of Neville Heath, the man just sentenced to death for suffocating a woman in a London hotel after beating her with a riding switch. It now came out that Heath had committed a second sadistic killing. Most of Britain - the newspapers anyway - had been engrossed by the case, as if the war hadn't given them enough death and violence. Rose found it sickening, but she was in the minority. And Barry claimed an interest because Heath was an ex-pilot in the South African Air Force who had spent some months with the RAF, attached to 180 Squadron. There was, admittedly, a suggestion of reflected glory about the way he spoke of him.
'By God, he's a handsome devil.'
'Your supper's getting cold.'
'You've got to admit he's handsome. Look.' He held the paper up. Heath was pictured seated between two detectives in the back of a car.
Not my idea of handsome, Rose thought, but a sight better-looking than you, I'll grant you, with your boozer's nose and flabby cheeks and overgrown moustache. 'It'll be ruined.'
'They tried to save him from the hangman by saying he was mad. Believe me, this chappie is as sane as you and me. Any man who can pilot a Mitchell bomber must be all right in the head.'
'Barry, are you coming to the table or not?'
'I never thought the day would come when a bloody murderer wore the RAF tie at his trial. You give a chap his wings and he behaves like that. Lunatic.'
'You just contradicted yourself.' 'What I'm saying is that he wasn't fit to hold the King's Commission.'
'He wasn't the only one.'
'I didn't mean you. I'll say that for you - you were a bloody good officer once.'
He hadn't listened. He was back with his newspaper. She could have added that he was the world's worst civil servant, but she didn't. He knew it.
Why antagonize him? He only passed on his frustration by humiliating her.
When Vic had a short lunch break he would meet Antonia in the Trevor Arms in Knightsbridge, ten minutes or so from Imperial College, where he lectured. He always whistled at the prices but it was the only pub in the district with carpets and soft lighting and barmaids who called you 'sir', and Antonia preferred it to anywhere else.
Today he offered her a gin and It instead of the usual shandy.
She raised her eyebrows. 'What's all this for, naughty boy? No point in getting me sloshed if you're going straight back to your boring students.'
'Is it no, then?'
'That's a little word I never use.'
She was getting some looks as usual. She was always being told she had a carrying voice. She leaned back in her chair and winked at a chinless lieutenant who was staring over his shoulder. The Trevor was the unofficial officers' mess for the Life Guards, who had their barracks next door.
Vic returned with the drinks. 'Actually I've got good news. Well, good news for me in a way.'
'Let's hear it, then.'
'I've been offered a two-year temporary lectureship at Princeton.'
Antonia put down her glass. 'Princetown? Someone's led you up the garden path, darling. That's not a university. It's a prison in the middle of Dartmoor.'
'Princeton, New Jersey.'
She felt a prickling sensation in her scalp. 'America?'
'For two years?'
'It's not until next summer.'
She looked into his brown eyes. Mentally he was already over there in New Jersey. She was livid. She couldn't survive a day without him. He was it. She'd never known a man who excited her more. 'You bastard! You didn't tell me you applied for this.'
'I didn't think I stood an earthly. Look, Antonia, it's not the end of the world.'
How little he knew! 'Judas! Two-faced, scurvy, bloodsucking louse. I'm coming with you.'
He was back in London like a rocket. 'You can't do that. You know you can't.'
'I'll leave him.'
Those eyes of his opened so wide she could see white all round them. 'It's an Ivy League university. I couldn't turn up there with a married woman in tow.'
As promised, Antonia was by the bandstand at half past two, conspicuous in a lilac-coloured coat with bishop sleeves and a matching Breton sailor hat tilted back rakishly. She was getting some long looks from the nannies walking their prams.
'Let's go that way, towards the Mall.'
'It's all the same to me.'
Green Park no longer looked like a war zone. The bulldozers had flattened the barbed wire fences and the searchlight station and filled in the artificial lake in time for the Victory celebrations. Squads of Italian POWs had laid fresh turf. Today Londoners in scores were out enjoying the autumn sun.
Rose gossiped happily about old times, and Antonia chipped in with bits of news she had picked up since. They covered just about everyone of the Kettlesham Heath crowd. Almost an hour passed before Antonia switched back to the present.
'Where do you and Barry live, then?'
Rose considered what answer she would give. She chose to keep it vague. 'Out Pimlico way.'
'A house? One of those sweet little terraced boxes covered in stucco?' Antonia should have been in intelligence in the war.
'It was all we could get and now we've got to stay until the war damage is put right.'
'So you were bombed.'
'The house across the street. A doodlebug. No one was hurt, thank God, but we lost our front door and all the windows and there are cracks you can see daylight through.'
'It could have been much worse. You have to look on the bright side. We can see right across the river now.' And I, Rose instantly thought, am incapable of keeping any secrets at all. I didn't want to tell her all this. She tried clumsily to cover up. 'But no one can ever find us because we haven't got a number on the new door.'
Excerpted from On the Edge by Peter Lovesey Copyright © 1989 by Peter Lovesey Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is an old style English murder mystery. What makes it old style? Well, it was set in the period immediately after WWII, in London. Other than that I don't quite know. Perhaps it was because it was more of psychological a character study than an action packed drama.This book started out very slow for me. It is primarily about two unhappily married women, in London, immediately after WWII. Neither of them are appealing characters, both are self centered. I read a couple of chapters and then I put it down for a couple of weeks. I just picked it up again a few days ago and coincidentally it became more interesting. One of the women becomes slightly more sympathetic because she starts asserting herself instead of just letting things happen. Things become more intense and more screwball right up to the very end.The story ends just as the whole thing is about to unravel. I would really like to read the story of the subsequent trial, if someone were to write it.