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Authors: Jo Walton

Tags: #Alternative History, #Mystery & Detective, #General

Ha'penny (6 page)

BOOK: Ha'penny
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The door opened. Carmichael looked up, expecting the maid, and saw a self-possessed man in his early thirties, in a pin-striped suit and Marlborough tie.

Mrs. Kinnerson screamed. Royston looked horrified.

“Hello, I’m Matthew Kinnerson,” he said, inquiringly. His tone said that he well understood how to use politeness as a weapon.

“They said you were dead!” Mrs. Kinnerson shrieked.

“Well, the reports seem to have been exaggerated, as they say, so do calm down, Rose. Who are these gentlemen?”

Carmichael stood. “I’m Inspector Carmichael, of Scotland Yard, and this is Sergeant Royston. I’m afraid there’s been a mistake.”

“Ah.” Kinnerson looked Carmichael up and down. “Should you perhaps be next door? Might it not be as well to check on such things?”

“Your mother, Lauria Gilmore, is dead,” Carmichael said.

“I am aware of that, although your colleagues neglected to inform me and I had to garner the information from the pages of the public press,” Kinnerson said, tapping the newspaper under his arm. “ ‘Actress Blown to Bits.’ Poor Lauria. Yet in a way, she would have liked to go with a bang. Am I to believe that you had reason to believe I was blown up with her?”

“Somebody was,” Carmichael said. “He was unrecognizable.”

“And you jumped to the conclusion that it was me? Why didn’t you telephone my office, where I’d have been delighted to speak to you, instead of driving all the way out here and distressing my wife?”

That was a very good question, and one for which Carmichael had no good answer. “The Hampstead police had your home address, but not your work telephone number,” Carmichael said. “I’m very sorry for the inconvenience.”

Kinnerson raised an eyebrow, and Carmichael squirmed.

“They thought she was your girlfriend,” Mrs. Kinnerson said, her voice cracking. “They were taken in by her makeup and her way of talking and thought she was a tart you were keeping in Hampstead. They wanted to know if you were there overnight.”

Carmichael felt himself blush under Kinnerson’s considering gaze. “Another misapprehension of the Hampstead police,” he said.

“Not quite what one expects from Scotland Yard,” Mr. Kinnerson said. “Go and tidy yourself up, Rose.”

Mrs. Kinnerson, seeming glad to be released, made for the door.

“Well, now that this seems to have been cleared up, can I say good-bye to you two gentlemen?” Kinnerson asked.

“I want to ask you some questions about your mother,” Carmichael said.

“You seem to know very little about her if you imagine she would allow herself to be a kept woman,” Kinnerson said.

“I know almost nothing about her except her reputation as an actress,” Carmichael said. “That’s why I want to talk to you. I want to know who her friends were, who she was, who might have been with her this morning, why someone would want to blow her up, or why she might have been making a bomb herself.”

Was it his imagination, or did Kinnerson tense a little at that last question?

“I didn’t know her very well,” he said. “I don’t expect I can be much help to you. Does this have to be now? My wife’s upset, I’d like to go to her.”

His wife was upset, but he wasn’t. Cool as a whole plate of cucumber sandwiches, Carmichael thought. “I could talk to you in the Yard, but we’re here now, and there isn’t all that much to talk about, as you’ve said,” he said, as professionally as he could manage. “Let’s get it out of the way now, shall we?”

“Very well, Inspector,” Kinnerson said, and sat down on the chair that Carmichael had first taken. “What do you want to know?”

“I suppose you are Lauria Gilmore’s next of kin?”

“I suppose I must be. Not that she had anything to leave. The house is mine, as you know.”

“The house is probably going to be pulled down,” Carmichael said. “It was badly damaged in the blast. And an insurance company will want to know exactly what happened before they agree on compensation.”

“No doubt,” Kinnerson said. “In any case, it is mine. Beyond that she only had some trinkets. She was never wealthy.”

“Your mother’s friends?” Carmichael prompted.

“I don’t know them. We didn’t share social circles at all. She called on me on precisely the occasions when she didn’t want her friends involved. She knew everyone in the theater, of course. I don’t believe she had lovers, not in recent years at least. She was over fifty, you know. She had a strong sense of independence. The only time I was ever close to her was during and directly after the war, when we saw a lot of each other.”

“She never mentioned close friends to you, more recently, I mean?”

“Every time I saw her, but not in a useful way.” Kinnerson rolled his eyes. “She’d say she’d been to lunch with Peter, darling boy, and that dear Marmaduke was considering her for a part in his new play, and would you believe that Biff was seeing JuJu now, as if that nonsense with Dandy had been completely forgotten.” He stopped. “If you didn’t know the people, it wasn’t always easy to follow. My wife found her difficult company, so we didn’t see much of her.”

Carmichael could imagine. “She called on you for support when she wanted someone who wasn’t in that world?” he asked.

“That’s right, Inspector. I was happy to help her. It wasn’t, whatever Rose may have led you to believe, all that often. I don’t suppose I’ve seen her three times in the last twelve months. A burglary last year, which seems to have been what led to this confusion.” He smiled, tight-lipped. “Taking her to the doctor when she had the flu last winter. Oh, and we had her here on Boxing Day for dinner and a little drinks party with some of our friends.”

Carmichael couldn’t imagine that going down very smoothly. “What were her politics?” he asked.

Kinnerson looked at the clock, and then at Royston. “That surely can’t matter now?” he asked.

“On the contrary, it may be highly important when establishing what motive someone may have had for bombing her.”

“Well, she was more left than anything else.” Kinnerson frowned.

“A communist?” Carmichael tried hard to keep his voice even. All the same, Kinnerson took fright at the word.

“Good God no! What I mean is, she used to vote Labour. She loved Ramsay MacDonald, I remember that, when he was Prime Minister and I was a little boy. She liked Bevan, now, Nye Bevan, she used to say he was the only honest man in Parliament.”

“Did she know him personally?” Carmichael asked.

“I don’t know. Probably. She was always meeting politicians. She’d met Ramsay MacDonald at a first night, I remember her telling me about it. She knew Churchill too, and was quite friendly with Lord Scott. But her politics, well, it wasn’t that sort of thing. She’d started off frightfully poor, and she’d got by on her own talent, and she had a sort of fellow feeling for poor people, thinking they ought to get the dole and compensation and so on. Unions. It was more sentiment than anything. She was very talented, and very beautiful when she was younger, but she wasn’t really very bright. But all the same, she’s the last person any sane communist would choose to blow up.”

“Who do you vote for, sir?” Royston asked. Carmichael frowned at him.

“I don’t believe that’s any of your business, sergeant,” Kinnerson said, closed tightly back into his shell.

“No, sir, sorry, sir,” Royston said.

“You don’t have any idea who might have been with her this morning?” Carmichael asked.

“I’m afraid not. Now, if that’s all, I really must get back to my wife.”

Carmichael stood. “If I might have your card, Mr. Kinnerson? It’s possible I may think of something else to ask you, and as you said, telephoning you in the office would be more convenient. Someone will no doubt be in touch with you in any case about funeral arrangements for your mother, and about your Hampstead house.”

Kinnerson took a card case from the inside pocket of his jacket, drew out a card, and handed it over. “Here you are, Inspector. My home number is here as well.”

Carmichael glanced at it. “Solomon Kahn,” he said. “I knew David Kahn, you know.”

Kinnerson gave him a quick glance, then looked away. “Did you?” he asked, his voice indifferent. “I met him once or twice, but we never worked together. Solomon Kahn is a big bank, employing a great many people, and he had his own division.”

“Of course,” Carmichael said, and handed Kinnerson his own card, with the Scotland Yard number. “Well, I apologize again for the distress we caused your wife by our confusion, and I’d like to thank you for answering our questions. Do get in touch if you think of anything else.”

Kinnerson showed them to the door himself, and stood there until they drove away.

“Why did you ask who he voted for, sergeant?” Carmichael asked. “He was opening up before that.”

“Sorry,” Royston said, again. “I wanted to see him crack. He was too smooth altogether, I thought.”

“Do you think he blew up his mother, or knows who did?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Royston said. “I have a feeling he was hiding something.”

“A hunch?” Carmichael asked, then laughed. “Not a hunch, because I have exactly the same feeling. The trouble is that what he’s hiding may be something totally innocent. But I’m quite sure he knows something he wasn’t saying.”

5

 

I
kicked off my shoes and flung myself facedown on the bed with the manuscript. I read and memorized and when, every so often, I sat up to take a sip of wine, I saw the roses Antony sent sitting in full bloom next to my mirror. Unfortunately, I didn’t have long in this undisturbed bliss before the phone rang. Mrs. Tring answered it, then knocked on my door.

“For you, Vi!” she called.

“How too bloody,” I said, getting off the bed. I heard Mrs. Tring laugh in the hall, which was why I’d said it. I’d spent a few years after leaving home trying to teach myself to swear the way people do, but it never came naturally. I decided eventually that if it was always going to sound affected anyway, I might as well cultivate that.

The receiver was lying on its side on the table. I picked it up and spoke in my best telephone drawl. “Hello?”

“Fats? It’s Sid.”

It was more than a year since I’d spoken to my sister Cressida, and then only casually. I seldom saw the family. I usually kept up with them through Mrs. Tring’s reading of the
Tatler
and gossiping with Dodo every few months. But I’d been thinking about them, they seemed somehow caught up with Hamlet, with Elsinore, so it hardly seemed strange at all to hear from her.

“How are you, Siddy?”

“Thriving, as ever. I need to see you.” The phone made the bray of her voice seem thin.

“Are you sure you want the hassle with Mamma?” I asked. “You know how she feels.” She had once forbidden the younger ones to see me alone because of the supposed immorality of acting, which could rub off on unmarried girls. Even now she would subject Dodo to days of cold-shouldering every time she saw me.

“If you’re in the second circle, I’m in the ninth,” she said. The ninth circle of Hell was reserved for traitors. “I don’t give a damn about Ma. Come and meet me.”

“All right, let’s have lunch sometime,” I said.

There was a pause at the other end. “I thought you theater people lived in a blaze of wild immediacy,” she said, and although I’d never heard it before I could tell from her inflections that the phrase was a mocking quote from something. “Come and meet me now, Fatso.”

I’ve always hated that name. “No,” I said. “Are you drunk, Siddy?” There was something about the way she was speaking that made me wonder.

“Drunk, that’s a good one. Haven’t touched a drop.”

“Still saving your pennies for the DW?”

She laughed, though it was a very old joke. When she was five or six, and I was about ten, at the time of the General Strike, we’d all been in London so Pappa could drive a bus. Uncle Tom had taken us all to Gunters and offered us cakes, and little Siddy, who had been reading a harrowing account of the miners’ conditions in the
Manchester Guardian,
had said she’d rather have the money to give to the dear workers. The dear workers, quickly abbreviated to DW, became a standing joke. “You don’t know how true. But come and meet me, Vile, do. Meet me at the Empire, Leicester Square, in an hour.”

“No!” I said, horrified. “Look, Sid, I am rather busy, I have a part to learn. You can’t just expect—”

“Ginns,” she interrupted. “Ginns, Fats.”

It’s strange how reluctant I am to set down that word and explain my response to it. My family are noted for being eccentric. They’re not necessarily people I’d choose to know, if I had a choice. But when you’re the third of six sisters born in eleven years, when you all live together for a long time, growing up, there are shared things that just do mean something. There are jokes, like Siddy and the DW, there are names, there are memories, and naturally there are words that have a private meaning. We fought a lot, growing up. We had feuds, we had friendships, we had rivalry. “Ginns,” simply enough, is short for “Now begins,” which is from a piece of ghastly poetry we all had to learn. What it means though is that something is absolutely urgent, a truce must be declared, ranks closed and help given. None of us ever abused ginns, not even the littlest ones. Although I hadn’t so much as heard the word in the twelve years since I’d left home, my response to it was immediate.

“I’ll be there,” I said, and put the phone down.

Mollie came in from her audition as I was putting my belted beige raincoat on. “How did it go?” I asked.

She groaned and ran her fingers through her hair, pulling off her scarf. “Where are you off to?”

“As a matter of fact, I’m going to have a cup of coffee with my sister Cressida.”

Mollie stopped dead, theatrically, and raised her eyebrows. “Are you sure that’s wise?”

“No,” I said, frankly. “But why do you ask?”

“Your sisters always unsettle you,” she said. “I think it has to do with the terrible way you were all brought up with nobody but each other and all the things you had to go through. In a dozen years away from them, you’ve turned out a lot more like a reasonable person, but where they’re concerned it’s as if you’re instantly ten years old again and they’ve shut you in the barn overnight.”

BOOK: Ha'penny
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