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Authors: Jo Walton

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

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BOOK: Ha'penny
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“We’ll go in then,” Carmichael said. “If Inspector Jacobson arrives, please ask him to join us.”

“That bloody yid,” the bobby muttered.

“I beg your pardon, constable?” Carmichael asked, silkily.

“Jacobson, sir. He’s a Jewboy. Didn’t you know?”

“I didn’t,” Carmichael said.

“Shouldn’t allow them in the police,” the bobby said.

“I’m surprised they do,” Royston put in.

“Oh, they allow it,” Carmichael said, weary of the whole conversation. “They think if they can stand the constant pinpricks of dealing with people who hate them, they’ll make good police officers. Not Scotland Yard, of course, but in the Met and the provincial forces. Come on, Royston, let’s see the house before it falls down.”

The bobby at the back had seen them the day before. He saluted. “The sappers said to say, sir, that fortunately there isn’t any gas, and the water main was secured right away, so the damage is mostly to the kitchen and the back of the house.”

“Thank you, constable,” Royston said. Carmichael nodded at the bobby and they made their way carefully in.

The house had been shored up with timber and tarpaulins. The dining room, the site of the explosion, was a shattered ruin. The kitchen, next to it, was also badly damaged and showed signs of water damage. “Not much point looking around in here, sir,” Royston said. “This is probably a job for the forensic boys.”

“They’ll be around,” Carmichael said, stepping over the remains of a table. “Let’s look at the rest of the house.”

There was a little sitting room at the front. The windows had been boarded up. Royston took out his torch and played it around. It was a conventional enough room, with sprigged wallpaper and a three-piece suite. A large looking glass hung cracked and crooked over the mantelpiece, reflecting the torchlight and the room crazily.

“Blast,” Royston said, using the word accurately. “Reminds me of the Blitz. Not much to see in here, sir.”

The room across the passage from it was more informative, and lighter, as the windows had survived intact. It was a small study, almost filled by a large untidy desk. The walls were covered with photographs, posters, and framed press cuttings, some faded and others quite new.

“Some of these go right back to the twenties,” Royston said, examining one of the posters.

“Even before that, sergeant,” Carmichael said, looking at a cutting. “This review of
Mary Rose
is dated 1917. She was a great hit in it, apparently.”

“Strange, in a way, isn’t it, sir?”

“What’s strange?” Carmichael turned to look at Royston, who was examining a photograph of a young Lauria Gilmore as Desdemona, looking as if she was about to dance the Charleston, complete with feathers and shingled hair.

“There’s nothing more dead than an old play.” Royston gestured to the picture. “There must be people alive who saw that thing, and other people who acted in it, and at the time it must have seemed exciting and important, maybe people queued for seats, but now it looks silly and dated and it’s gone completely leaving nothing behind, except for what people remember. Strange, and a bit sad, when you come to think of it.”

Carmichael sighed. “That isn’t getting us anywhere, sergeant. Let’s search the desk.”

“Yes, sir,” Royston said, immediately, but before he moved to the desk he straightened the Desdemona picture.

Carmichael hit pay dirt almost at once. Under a note from someone signing himself Antony inviting her to lunch at the Venezia in Covent Garden on the previous Friday, he found a small floral appointment diary. He turned to June and found each page bordered in climbing roses.

Her handwriting was small and precise, not at all like the extravagant signature on the photograph Inspector Jacobson had given him. Carmichael read it aloud to Royston. “Friday June sixteenth, AB, Venezia 1
P.M
. Dinner, 7
P.M
. Dinner is underlined. Saturday June seventeenth, PM 10
A.M
., GM 8
P.M
.”

“PM,” Royston repeated. “Someone must have reported a PM as missing.”

Carmichael flipped through the book. He looked ahead first, at the appointments she had made and would not keep. The rehearsals and first night of
Hamlet
were marked off decisively, on pages bordered with sunflowers. The first night, Friday, July 1, was underlined twice, as was the time, 8:30
P.M
. Apart from that she had one more meeting with PM, on June 30, again at 10
A.M
., the day of the final dress rehearsal. There were other dinner appointments, and a few lunch appointments, decisively crossed out. The
Hamlet
dates, the crossings out, the emphatic dinner, and the PM appointment were in blue ink. The others were in black.

Looking backwards, he saw evidence of a busy social life, with many friends, all initialized. PM cropped up irregularly, generally for lunch or dinner. Carmichael flipped back further. May was daisies, and April daffodils. The only appointments she had other than for lunch and dinner were theatrical. This early morning appointment had been unusual. He read back. February was snowdrops and January winter jasmine. The ink colors changed regularly, between blue and black. It probably didn’t mean much. He turned back to June. “Lunch AB” was in black. He picked up the letter from Antony and noted the address. He would have to find out who this Antony B. was, as well as PM. Judging by the infrequent appearances of “MK,” Kinnerson had probably been telling the truth about how often he saw his mother.

“Bingo,” Royston said suddenly. Carmichael looked up. Royston had been going through the other things on the desk. “Address book.” The cover showed a languishing Pre-Raphaelite maiden with too much hair. Royston flicked through it. “Sadie Moorhead, Peter Marshall, Mary Marsden, Daniel Miniver, Pat McKnight, Frank Moston, C. Mitchell, Margaret MacDonald.”

“Pat McKnight or Peter Marshall,” Carmichael said. “Good work, sergeant.”

“Unless one of the others is nicknamed P,” Royston warned. “Margaret MacDonald could be Peggy.”

“Even so, it’ll be much faster to contact them all than to check every missing person in the country,” Carmichael said, taking the book from Royston. He picked up the phone on the desk and listened for a moment. He had half-expected it to be dead, but it hummed happily, so he began to dial. There were two numbers for Peter Marshall, one a London exchange and the other Portsmouth, both neatly inked in black. The London number rang for a long time without response. Carmichael tried the other, waiting while the operator put him through.

That phone was answered quickly and breezily. “HMS
Valiant.

Carmichael was made wary by his experience with Kinnerson. “Is Peter Marshall there?”

“I’m afraid he’s not.” The breezy voice at the other end made nothing of it.

“Can you tell me when he will be?”

There was a slight pause. The line crackled. “Well, to tell you the truth he should be here by now,” the voice went on, a little less cheerfully. “Lieutenant Marshall was due back from leave this morning, which means by eight, but he had a forty-eight in London and he’s late reporting in. Can I take a message, old boy?”

Carmichael looked at his watch. It was nearly ten. “Can I speak to Lieutenant Marshall’s commanding officer?” he asked.

“Who is this?” The voice sounded wary.

“This is Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard,” Carmichael said, with a great deal of satisfaction.

“Oh don’t tell me Peter’s busted up his car again?”

“I certainly shan’t tell
you
anything of the sort,” Carmichael said, silkily. Royston, who was still sorting through the piles on the desk, looked up and grinned at his tone. “Could you please let me speak to Lieutenant Marshall’s commanding officer?”

“Yes, sir.”

The line crackled again, as Carmichael was transferred. He put his hand over the mouthpiece. “Seems like Marshall is a possibility,” he said. “Naval man. Due back from leave today and not shown up.”

The phone sputtered back to life. “Captain Beddow speaking,” it barked.

“Good morning, sir. I’m inquiring about one of your officers, a Lieutenant Peter Marshall.”

“Seems the fellow’s late back from leave, hey?”

“Yes, sir. I—”

Captain Beddow clearly wasn’t prepared to wait for Carmichael’s explanation. “What’s your problem, Inspector?”

“Did Marshall say anything to you about an intention to see Lauria Gilmore while he was in London, sir?”

“Didn’t say anything to me that I recall,” Beddow said. “Lauria—what, that actress woman who was blown up?”

“Marshall knew her,” Carmichael said.

“He might be intimately acquainted with the whole chorus line of the Gaiety for all I care,” Beddow said. “I’m a busy man, Inspector.”

“There’s a possibility that Marshall was the man killed with Miss Gilmore yesterday. The body is very difficult to identify. Is Marshall habitually late back from leave, sir?”

“I—what? No, no he isn’t. Some of the others—well. I was expecting you to tell me he’d piled up his silly car.”

“No, sir. What kind of car did Marshall drive?” Carmichael wondered what Captain Beddow regarded as silly.

“Little red Austin. But you really think he’s dead?”

“There’s a distinct possibility, sir. At present making an identification of Miss Gilmore’s companion would be most useful to us. What I’d like to ask would be for you to wait until mid-day for Marshall to report in. If he does report in, please call me at the Yard and I’ll continue to pursue other possibilities. If not, then I’d like you to send an officer who knew Marshall well to London to attempt identification.”

“Yes. Yes, I’ll do that, Inspector. Terrible business. Terrible. Getting himself blown up having lunch with an actress. Not safe in our beds. The Prime Minister’s quite right.”

“Yes, sir,” Carmichael said, though he wondered again whether Mark Normanby might have had rather more to do with setting the bomb than trying to prevent it. Though why would an aging actress and a naval lieutenant have become a danger?

“Just like that bomb in Wales,” Beddow went on, underlining Carmichael’s thoughts.

“Can you tell me anything about Marshall?” Carmichael asked.

Beddow spluttered for a moment. “Good man. Good sailor. Came into the service in the war and stayed in. Patriotic. He was due for promotion, overdue really, but with the naval cuts nobody’s been moving on as fast as they could. The sort of man the country really can’t spare.”

“How old is Marshall?”

Beddow seemed a little taken aback. “I’d have to look it up. Within a year or two of thirty, I’d say. Shall I have his records sent to you?”

Young for Gilmore, even if she had a thing for sailors, Carmichael thought, then immediately reproached himself for jumping to conclusions again. Though surely he couldn’t be another son? “That would be very useful, sir,” he said. They rang off in an exchange of platitudes. Carmichael repeated the gist of the conversation to Royston.

“A red Austin?” Royston asked.

“They both seemed to think he’d crashed it. He must have been a terrible driver. Or maybe he drank. The Austin’s not a dangerous car.”

“It’s not that, sir,” Royston said. He went to the window. “There’s a red Austin right outside the house. And it was there yesterday too, I remember noticing it while you were talking to the reporters in the rain.”

“Yes, one of them was leaning on it,” Carmichael said. “It could be a coincidence. They’re not that rare. All the same, I have a strong feeling Marshall never reports back to his ship and we don’t need to ring the rest of these names.”

“A hunch, sir?” Royston asked.

Carmichael rolled his eyes wearily. “Have you found anything else?”

“Lots of rubbish mostly, bills for dresses and letters arranging parties. More cuttings. But there’s this.” He handed Carmichael a thick sheaf of stained and yellowing papers, stapled in the corner with a rusty staple. Carmichael looked through them at first casually, and then again with interest.

“These look like instructions for building a bomb,” he said.

“That’s what I reckoned,” Royston said. “And they were close to the top of one of the piles.”

“It seems ridiculous, but maybe she really was making a bomb herself.” Carmichael felt his spirits lift at the thought.

“Kinnerson said she was a red,” Royston pointed out.

“So he did,” Carmichael said, looking down at the yellowed pages, so different from the elaborately floral diary. “Where I really do have a hunch, sergeant, is that we’re going to be finding out an awful lot more than we want to about Lauria Gilmore in the near future.”

“And I remember you said that you always followed up hunches that mean extra work,” Royston sighed. “I can’t imagine why she’d have wanted to make a bomb.”

“When we know that, we’ll know everything about the case,” Carmichael said. “Let’s get on with that desk. Jacobson will be here any minute, and I want to check the other rooms, just in case.”

7

 

T
he station for Coltham is Eskridge. It was a perfect June Sunday, and of course there was nobody there to meet me. As I stood there fuming and cursing Siddy, I couldn’t imagine why I’d ever thought for a minute that there would be. In all my childhood memories of her she was unreliable and sometimes actively treacherous. I stood there fuming at myself.

It’s a boring little nowhere place, Eskridge, not really even a village, just a slew of ugly little houses that look as if they’ve washed up around the railway station. Nobody else had left the train. I was alone on the platform but for a few iron benches painted green and a hanging basket of geraniums. I went out through the station. A ticket collector nodded to me. I walked out onto the forecourt impatiently. There was absolutely no sign of anyone. I might as well have stayed in bed. Just as I was turning to look at the timetable to see when there would be a train back to London, a little open-topped sports car drew up with a squeal of brakes and a total stranger got out.

The car was smart as paint, and the stranger was smarter. He was tall and dark and, yes, handsome, in a devil-may-care way. You stop taking much notice of looks in the theater; you see so many pretty faces and lots of them belong to people who don’t deserve them, or who think that owning that face means it will be their fortune. They have to learn that no face is anyone’s fortune without an awful lot of hard work going with it. Still, this man had such perfect features, such artfully cut hair, such an air of arrogant charm, that I kept looking at him to see if he could keep on carrying it off.

BOOK: Ha'penny
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