Authors: Jo Walton
Tags: #Alternative History, #Mystery & Detective, #General
“Yes, sir,” Carmichael said.
“Have you made any progress in finding Sir Aloysius?”
“No, quite the opposite. He doesn’t have a hotel or a lodging. He must be deliberately hiding. Can we get a warrant in any case, sir, so I can arrest him if he turns up? Or I could just pull him in. I don’t think he has the connections Lord Scott does. The good news is that I have found a possible place Nash might be. I’ll check that now, sir.”
“Very good, but keep working on Sir Aloysius,” Penn-Barkis said, and the line went dead.
“I’ve been thinking, maybe he’s staying with Nash at Nash’s place,” Royston said.
“Let’s hope so, sergeant.”
They set off for Chalk Farm with high hopes. The address proved to be on the top floor of a purpose-built 1930s building of six flats. The entrance hall was painted cream and had a set of six mailboxes and six bells. There was no name on the bell of
nor any answer when they rang the bell downstairs. They climbed two flights of pale green stairs, and arrived at a little landing, with two doors facing each other. Royston shrugged and knocked on the one marked
There was no reply.
“May as well try the other and see if they know anything,” he said, and knocked across the hallway at
The door to
was opened at once by a fat woman with her hair in curlers and a cigarette in the corner of her mouth. “Whatever it is, I don’t want any,” she said.
“We’re not selling anything, we’re looking for the occupants of number six,” Carmichael said.
“They’re not there,” she said.
“Do you know where they are?” Royston asked.
“Down to Portsmouth I expect. They’re only coming and going here, you know.” She blew out smoke.
“When did you last see them?” Royston asked.
She squinted suspiciously. “Why are you asking so many questions?”
“We’re police,” Carmichael said, wearily, deciding it was probably most productive to gratify her curiosity a little. “There’s a possibility they’re mixed up in something criminal. Do you remember the last time you saw them?”
“There’s never been nothing like that,” she protested. “Couple of nice polite young men they are, and only sharing the flat because of the expense. They’re hardly ever even here together, the way they get their leave, see. No, you don’t want to think that about them.”
Carmichael wondered if his own neighbors would be prepared to go to such lengths lying for him if it came to it.
“It’s nothing like that,” Royston said. “Matter of murder.”
She took a last drag on her cigarette and stubbed it out on the wall. “Murder?” she asked, as if it were an entry on a menu she didn’t think she’d choose. “Well I never.”
“When did you last see them?” Carmichael repeated patiently.
“Not this weekend, the weekend before,” she said. “One of them was here, the dark one, and the fair one came down and joined him on the Friday.”
“And when did they leave?” Royston asked.
“I saw the fair one leave on the Sunday morning when we were all on our way out to church. He said good-bye very politely, like always. I don’t know when the dark one left, either when we were in church or before sometime. I haven’t seen either of them since, but it isn’t unusual, sometimes they won’t come down here for weeks at a time. They’re sailors, and they have to wait till they have leave, but when they do, they want to be in London, only natural isn’t it?”
“Do you have a key to six?”
“No, why would I?” She bristled.
“You’re obviously a friend of theirs, and they were away a lot, they might have left you their key so you could let meter men in and that kind of thing,” Royston said.
“All the meters for the building are together downstairs,” she said. “There isn’t any need for anything like that. I haven’t got a key, not that I would have minded if they had ever asked me. Very nice polite gentlemen, never no noise, and they keep to themselves.”
“You’re sure neither of them have been hiding in the flat?” Carmichael asked, losing hope but not prepared yet to surrender it entirely.
“I’d have seen them going in and out,” she insisted. “And the walls are that thin, if they’d been there I’d have heard something, I always do, moving about, and the water running.”
“Thank you, you’ve been very helpful,” Carmichael said.
They walked down the first set of stairs. Carmichael stopped on the first floor and knocked on
“What are you doing, sir?” Royston asked.
“Checking her story, just in case she was being all too helpful to Nash, nice polite boy,” Carmichael said.
The woman in
was sharp-nosed and hostile. “What do you want?” she asked.
“Police, we’re inquiring about the occupants of number six,” Royston said. “When did you last see them?”
“Last heard them tramping about last Sunday morning,” she said. “Is that all?”
It was all. “We can get a warrant to break in and check the place,” Carmichael said as they got back into the car. “But I hardly have the heart for it. Nash isn’t there, and hasn’t been since last Sunday, though he could have been quite safely until today. I wish I knew how that man had contrived to vanish.”
“And Sir Aloysius too. But maybe we’ll find them together.”
“Maybe they’re both with Lord Scott. Maybe we’ll arrest them all together tomorrow after I meet with the Home Secretary. But I’m not counting on it.”
“No, sir,” Royston said, eyeing Carmichael with respect.
odo was claimed by Heinie for a dance. He offered to come back and dance with me next, which I found rather a daunting prospect. Unlike his Fuhrer, I didn’t find him attractive at all. I couldn’t imagine what Pip saw in him, unless his aura of authority lent him glamour in her eyes, or was a power grab pure and simple. I stood and watched the room for a moment. The lines of the architecture were softened by the evening clothes of the guests, except for those, mostly German, in uniform. The women’s clothes, the soft beiges, the layers of pastels and lace, seemed like a floating symbol of civilization against the stark brutality of the room. I wondered how anyone could have done such violence to a perfectly nice pair of Georgian houses. The music was ghastly, too. At any other bash of that sort, the band would have been playing old-fashioned jazz or just plain dance tunes. This band were playing Strauss waltzes, very correct I suppose, and horrible German dance tunes with a female singer whose voice made my head hurt.
“Isn’t that the Duchess of Kent?” a girl with a neck too long for her hairstyle asked me.
“I haven’t seen her,” I said, looking, but the girl had gone on without a word.
I danced with Captain Keiler, who was very polite and attentive, and seemed genuinely sorry to leave me and go on to his next obligation. He danced well, but I was glad to be alone again. I took a glass of white wine from a tray skillfully wielded by a waiter as he moved through the throng. I watched him move away from me. He was more graceful than the dancers, I thought, not to mention better looking, and wondered how to do that on stage. It could be jolly effective. Dignity of labor didn’t seem likely to be fashionable for a while, though.
“Isn’t Daphne knocking back a little more than she should be?” a voice brayed over my shoulder. I turned, but the bitch wasn’t addressing me but a companion, who replied in lower tones. The braying one was Lady Eversley, a political wife who liked to think she ran the country through her husband. I knew her because she had a son at Oxford at the time of my come-out—he was killed in the war, like all the nicest of our generation—and because she was an incorrigible manager she’d been buzzing around the edges of the debutante scene. Even then she’d never bothered to lower her voice, no matter how unkind she was being about anyone. I looked away from her before she noticed me.
There were plenty of girls called Daphne, but I thought she must mean Daphne Normanby, who had been Daphne Dittany when she was a deb the same year I was. There had been some frightful scandal about her then, which nobody would ever tell me. I don’t suppose it was truly any more shocking than half the things I did find out about. It wasn’t that she was having a baby, or if she was she must have lost it, poor thing, because although she did get married in rather a hurry she’d never had any children. She’d never been an especial chum of mine, but we had been to each other’s parties and once shared a taxi home in the rain and giggled all the way. I looked for her now in the crowd. She was the Prime Minister’s wife now, which must be enough to drive anyone to drink.
She was standing by the buffet table, with a glass of wine in her hand. “Daphne,” I said. “You’re looking lovely. It’s been simply yonks.” The bit about looking lovely wasn’t much of an exaggeration. She had always been a pretty girl, and good at grooming, and now she had the money to buy clothes to really suit her. Her hair was perfect too, which made me a little self-conscious about my Mollie-matching cut.
Daphne took a moment to focus on me. “Viola Larkin,” she said. It was true that she was drunk, I saw, or at least not sober. “What an unusual dress.”
“It’s my act one costume, from
” I said, wearily. “I thought—”
“Yes, I see, how frightfully clever of you,” she interrupted. “I’ll be very glad myself when the fashion changes. I do prefer definite colors. But are you sure about that bodice?”
I glanced down at it. “I don’t see high necks coming into fashion, no, but it’s for the play, it’s supposed to suggest purity.”
“Purity? Is the play absolutely deadly?” she asked, lowering her voice confidentially. “Shakespeare simply slays me. I’m supposed to be there, flying the flag beside Mark, but if it is, I might contrive to have a headache and miss it.”
“Miss it, you’d hate it,” I said, with perhaps more urgency than I should have. She stared at me. “If you don’t like Shakespeare anyway, you’re bound to hate
” I added.
“I prefer comedy, or something with music. I saw you in that funny thing last year, what was it called?”
?” I asked.
“You were ever so funny anyway. You even made Mark laugh, and that, my dear, is an achievement.”
I laughed. “Are you finding the whole Prime Minister’s wife thing a bore?”
“Oh you don’t know how deadly, my dear, and it’s not been a month yet. You were so right to get away from the whole business and do something you wanted to.”
I wondered what Daphne would have wanted to do. “At least you must have the fun of going into a lot of rooms first,” I ventured.
Daphne looked over to where Lady Eversley was still casting a disapproving eye on her. “The rules of precedence do have some compensations,” she said.
I found Mark Normanby himself at my elbow. “Viola, lovely to see you,” he said, though I had never known him well, even when we had moved in the same world. He took Daphne’s elbow in a way that seemed affectionate, but which looked too tight.
“I was just telling Viola how much we liked her in
last year,” Daphne said. Her voice had closed up and become tense, as if she had the most awful stage fright.
“And we’re looking forward to seeing you in
on Friday,” Mark said, smiling and affable.
Close up, he did not seem any more than Hitler did, like a dangerous dictator whose removal would ensure the freedom of Europe for a generation.
“I hope you both enjoy it,” I said, and saw Daphne relax a little because I didn’t give her away.
“Is that a costume from the play you’re wearing?” Mark asked.
“You’re the first person to work that out for himself,” I said.
“Mark’s always been exceedingly clever,” Daphne said.
“I’m afraid I must drag you away from your chum to do your duty now, darling,” he said.
“Lovely to have spoken to you, Viola,” Daphne said, as her husband steered her away.
I stared after them. That elbow grip worried me.
“How are you, Viola?” an old man’s voice asked over my shoulder. I turned and saw Lord Ullapool. I hadn’t seen him since the terrible weekend I’d spent staying with them up in the wilds of Scotland. He had been old then, white-haired at least, but active, taking a leading part in the deer stalking. Now he seemed elderly. His hawk’s profile seemed a little fallen in on itself, and he was leaning on a cane.
“Thriving,” I said. “I heard about Lady Ullapool and I’m so sorry.” I had heard from Mrs. Tring’s leisure reading.
“We appreciated your card,” he said, which was very kind of him and made me feel glad I’d bothered. He always had been kind, I remembered, even though he was old and dull. After I’d turned down Edward’s proposal and was expecting dinner to be rather a minefield, I found myself sitting next to him. He had talked to me soothingly about Gothic arches, which was rather restfully boring in the circumstances. Lady Ullapool had spent the whole meal looking one step away from tears. She kept giving me reproachful glances. Edward on the other hand hadn’t looked at me once. I’d been very glad of Lord Ullapool’s Gothic arches.
“This doesn’t seem like your usual sort of party,” I said.
“I was in town to see my doctor, and now Edward’s in office he wanted to trot me out.” He smiled. “He thinks I don’t have enough social life. I can’t tell him I don’t envy him one if it means standing about eating canapes with a lot of Germans.”
“I’m only here myself to see my sisters,” I confided.
“But didn’t I just see you talking to the Prime Minister?”
He took a glass of wine from a passing waiter. I swallowed what was left in my own glass and took another. “I was talking to Daphne, who is an old friend, and he came up and claimed her. He’s frightfully arrogant, isn’t he?”
“Well, it’s a powerful position.” He lowered his voice. “Although Edward is of his party and I shouldn’t say this, I don’t altogether approve of Mr. Normanby myself. This proposal to have fixed terms and electoral districts arranged by occupation instead of geography goes against the grain with me.”