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Authors: Charles Todd

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Proof of Guilt

BOOK: Proof of Guilt
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Proof of Guilt

Charles Todd

Dedication

For Otto Penzler

and everyone at

The Mysterious Bookshop

For all you’ve done for the Mystery, for mystery writers,

and for mystery fans everywhere.

Here’s to you!

Chapter One

Funchal Harbor, Madeira

3 December 1916

H
e couldn’t remember, later, what had taken him down to the harbor.

Now, staring out at the masts of the CS
Dacia,
the British cable-laying ship, he found himself thinking about England.

Dacia
was said to be diverting the overseas cable, in an attempt to deny the Germans access to it. Whether it was true or not, he didn’t know. But she and the French gunboat
Surprise
had brought the war home to him in an unexpected and unwelcome fashion.

England had been at war since August 1914. But Portugal and, by extension, Madeira had remained neutral in spite of a centuries’ old alliance with Britain. In spite, as well, of clashes with Germany in the Portuguese Colony of Angola, in Africa. Neutrality was one of the reasons he’d decided to live here. His grandmother had been a Quaker by conviction, and he himself held strong views about war and the waste it brought in its wake.

He turned to look upward. Madeira was volcanic, its climate temperate, and its soil fertile. A paradise of flowers, which his mother had loved. Clouds were beetling down the mountainside, concealing the heights, but on a promontory to the far side of the bay, he could still see the tower of his house. Three stories, like most in Funchal, and in his eyes far more handsome than the house where he’d grown up in Essex. It was his late grandfather Howard French, his mother’s father, who had introduced him to the wine business here. He’d come as a boy and stayed as a man. An exile, but a happy one.

A flash spun him around to stare at the harbor just as an explosion amidships sent a column of black smoke rising from
Dacia
. He was trying to think what could have happened aboard when another explosion rocked
Surprise,
and just above him, from the vantage point of the Grand Hotel grounds, someone was pointing and shouting.

“There—look, it’s a submarine!”

The voice carried clearly, this close to the water.

He didn’t lose time trying to see. He began to run, turning his back on the harbor as other explosions shook it. People were coming out of doorways, stopping in the streets to stare, calling to one another, unable to believe the evidence of their own eyes. He risked a glance over his shoulder and saw pillars of black smoke rising from
Dacia,
which had been hit again, and
Surprise,
and even
Kangaroo,
a third ship near them.

Someone in the water was screaming, and he could hear other cries as the heavy smell of burning timbers wafted inland on the onshore breeze, making him cough.

His offices were on the street just above the harbor. French, French & Traynor, Exporters, handled Madeira, the fortified wine that had made the island famous. And if this shelling of the ships in the harbor was a precursor to an invasion, there was work to be done in a hurry.

Sprinting across the street, where a few motorcars were halted, and several carriages and drays had pulled up, their occupants transfixed by the burning ships, he passed a wild-eyed horse rearing in its traces, the odor of smoke terrifying it.

In the doorway of the export house stood most of his employees, and those who couldn’t crowd into the narrow space were at the windows, their faces nearly as shocked as he felt.

“Mr. Traynor!” his foreman shouted in English. “What are they doing?”

“I don’t know.” He pushed his way inside and ordered his people to follow him.

His own office was in the front, overlooking the street. Behind the offices was the long space where the shop stood and the heavy drays were kept. Above and beyond that the cavernous rooms where great barrels of Madeira, coded by age and type, rested on their sides. And the high-ceilinged rooms with the kettles and vats and gauges that heated the wine, along with the smaller room where all the tools collected through centuries of winemaking were displayed. And at the very back, the long room where employees ate their meals, walls hand-painted by them down the generations and a source of much pride.

Wood, all of them, and they were all vulnerable to fire.

He stopped short, suddenly overwhelmed.

What to do? It would take days—and at best would be a very risky task—to move the wine, and as for the equipment, more days to disengage the pipes and lines that connected kettles to vats. An impossible task.

Even if he managed it, where could he take an entire building to safety?

Matthew Traynor stood there, feeling helpless.

Damn the Germans. And damn the war.

Someone was asking him if Portugal had been attacked—if it had fallen—if this was a prelude to invasion. Others were pleading with him to allow them to leave, to reach their families before it was too late.

Torn, feeling for the first time in his life that he didn’t know how to answer, he tried to collect his wits and act.

Just as he was about to speak, someone poked his head into the doorway behind Traynor and shouted, “The U-boat. She’s surfacing.”

He went to the door to see for himself, and there was the U-boat, in plain view, water still spilling across her hull, gun crews clambering out of the tower, racing across to the deck guns. The fort’s harbor batteries, such as they were, hadn’t opened up. By the time he looked back at the submarine, men had reached the guns, swung them around, and the shelling began.

Not of the harbor, but of Funchal itself.

He realized then that it was too late. “Go home. While you can,” he told the employees waiting anxiously behind him. “If this is an invasion, stay at home. Don’t do anything rash.”

“What about the wine?” his foreman asked. “What are we to do?”

Traynor took a deep breath. “We’ll just have to pray it survives. Now go, take the back streets.
Hurry
. No, not this way, out through the rear door.”

He could hear the shells exploding now, picture in his mind the damage being done, the cost in property and lives. People were screaming, running in every direction, panicked.

His secretary, a young Portuguese man he’d hired last year, was tugging at his sleeve. “Come, you must go too. Look how the shells are falling!”

And Matt Traynor let himself be led to his own rear door, his mind numbed by shock and a terrible anger he couldn’t control. Around him the building shuddered as a shell landed not more than three houses away.

Years of work.
Years
. And there was nothing he could do.

T
he shelling lasted all of two hours. The harbor guns, ineffectual at best, could do little to stop the ravaging of the capital. Runners had been sent to other towns on the island, asking if there had been landings of German troops, but no reports came back.

And then, as suddenly as it had begun, the shelling stopped. The submarine decks cleared, the hatch was closed, and she slipped quietly beneath the harbor waves, leaving behind two burning vessels, the
Dacia
already sunk, and countless lives lost. In the town itself, shells accounted for other deaths, falling masonry and timbers for more wounded and dying.

Matt Traynor, hurrying by horseback into Funchal again, saw to his utter amazement that the firm’s windows had been blown out, glazing everywhere, but the building was still standing and appeared to be sound. Still, there were the casks, the great barrels, and the shaking they must have sustained, seals broken, staves sprung. The new wine the vats held, which would either be all right or a total loss, nothing in between. Weeks would pass—months—before he learned what the cost of the shelling would actually be. And there were the glaziers, to replace the glass. They would be busy—he must contact them at once, today, to protect the building from looters come for the wine. Meanwhile, he must hire more night watchmen to stand guard until the House of French, French & Traynor was secure once more.

Dismounting, he stood there for a moment, staring around him at the destruction that had changed this familiar street into a nightmare, masonry everywhere, trees shattered, the pavement itself pocked and broken.

And then, taking a deep breath, he prepared himself for what he’d find inside.

Someone was running down the littered street, calling his name. It was a maid from the house of his fiancée. He felt his heart turn over. “What is it?” he shouted to Manuela and stood where he was, rooted to the spot.

“It’s the Senhorita,” she cried, and he wanted to cover his ears.

Please, God, nothing more. I can’t face anything more.

The bleeding of war-torn France, the endless lists of dead, wounded, and missing from Ypres and the Somme, the suffering in England—none of these had touched him. But this was different. This was his own safe, happy world.

“She’s dead,” Manuela was saying, tears streaming down her red face, and he could read her lips even though the words refused to register. “The beam in her bedroom—she was praying before the Madonna, and it— She’s dead.”

He heard himself say, “But—that’s not possible. Her house was out of range, it was
safe
.”

“It was the shaking, Senhor. It went on and on, and the plaster gave way . . .”

A week later, his affairs set in order, his fiancée and her mother buried in the hillside cemetery where scarlet bougainvillea spilled luxuriantly over the wall, a brightness that hurt the eyes, he set sail for Portugal. To enlist there.

Chapter Two

Summer 1920: The Sussex Coast

E
dgar Billings had stopped at the small pub for a late lunch, lingering over the remnants of his pudding in spite of the glances cast his way by the proprietor, eager to see him off and clear away the noontime meal.

It was nearly two o’clock when the outer door of the pub crashed open and a man dressed in worn corduroy trousers and Wellingtons came quickly inside, calling for Constable Means.

“He’s not here,” the proprietor said. “I expect he went home for his meal. What’s happened, then?”

“A body. Washed up on the shale below Dungeness Light. I thought he’d want to know.”

“A body?” the proprietor repeated. “Not someone we know?”

The Pelican was some distance from Dungeness, but a good many of the fishermen along the coast stopped in there from time to time.

The man shook his head. “Didn’t recognize him.”

“Aye, well, that’s something to be grateful for.”

Billings had risen from his table and walked toward the two men, reaching into his pocket for his money.

He paid his account and went out the door. The man who had brought the news looked after him. “Stranger?”

“Yes,” the proprietor said. “Passing through. He said.”

“Well, then, I’ll be off to find Means.” The man nodded.

Billings, in the yard outside the pub, was already in his motorcar. “Give you a lift?” he asked the man.

“Thanks, no, I’m just off up the road.”

Billings had already cranked the motor, and he let in the clutch, turning toward the coast.

Watching him drive on, the man said to himself, “Now what’s his interest in the body?”

He set out at a trot for the constable’s small house.

B
illings found the lighthouse with no trouble. It stood out across the flat land along this part of the coast. But there was no direct way to reach it. The track into it wandered past the rough houses of fishermen, skirted patches of wind-beaten grass, and finally came to an end above the long shelf of shale that began by the light and covered the quarter mile to the sea itself. After reversing the motorcar to face the way he’d come, he got out.

Walking was difficult through the shale. Each step seemed to spread a dozen stones into thousands, with no good purchase for his shoes, like walking in sand but harder, and by the time he was in sight of the sea, he was winded.

From here he could see the body lying just above the tide line. A lone fisherman kept watch, and the smell of his pipe tobacco reached Billings from where the man squatted by the corpse.

Billings plodded on, under the eye of the fisherman, and soon reached the body.

The dead man was dressed in a well-tailored shirt, summer-weight trousers, no shoes. Hair too dark and muddied with seawater to judge its color, his face scraped by the stones where he must have tossed and turned with the incoming tide before being washed up far enough to come to rest at the edge of the tide line, too heavy now in his sodden clothing to be carried out again.

Like a discarded piece of driftwood the sea didn’t want any longer.

The fisherman stood up as Billings approached.

“Stranger,” he said with a nod.

“I was at the pub when someone brought news of a dead man.”

“That’ud be Burton,” the fisherman said, still watching Billings with suspicion in his eyes.

“Burton? Yes, I expect it was,” Billings said easily. “I thought I’d have a look for myself.”

“Curious about a dead man?” the fisherman asked.

“I’ve been searching this coast for days, looking for a certain man. I thought perhaps this might be he.”

“Looking to find—or to drown?”

Billings smiled and took out his identification. “Scotland Yard.”

The fisherman scrutinized it. Billings wondered if the man could read.

Finally satisfied, the fisherman nodded. “Right, then. Have a look. Constable Means will be along soon. He might not care to have the Yard meddling in his patch.” It was said with an overtone of venom, as if the fisherman and Means didn’t get along.

Billings came forward, careful where he stepped, but there was nothing here that could tell him where the man had died or why. And there were no stains on the shirt to indicate a wound washed clean by the sea.

Squatting, as the fisherman had done, he peered into the dead face.

It wasn’t his quarry. He was sure of it. “Any identification on him?”

The fisherman shook his head. “Burton looked.”

“Did he take anything away from the corpse?”

“He’s an honest bloke, Burton. I doubt he’d rob the dead.”

“Yes, well, honest men have their price.” Billings rose to his feet. “My compliments to Constable Means. The corpse is all his.” He turned to leave, then thought of something else. “Your name? For the record, since you’ve kept the man company for some time.”

The fisherman hesitated, then said, “Henderson. George Henderson.”

Billings nodded. “Good day, Henderson.”

The wind from the sea buffeted him as he walked back to where he’d left his motorcar, making the going even harder. A sudden gust nearly knocked him off his feet, and he was glad, finally, when he’d gained the shelter of his vehicle.

He sat there for a time, in the shadow of the lighthouse, as the sun went in and out briefly and then retired from the fray altogether. And then, with decision, he got out, turned the crank, and drove back the way he’d come.

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