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Authors: Martha Grimes

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BOOK: The Old Contemptibles
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He shoved aside papers and folders and put his head on the desk.

He realized he had dozed off only when he felt a presence above
him, looked up and saw Sergeant Wiggins standing over him with a bag from Natural Habitat, one of Wiggins’s new watering places. As what Jury was sure must have been a bad dream turned itself into reality, he was at least thankful that he hadn’t mentioned Jane Holdsworth to anyone around here. That was not because he couldn’t take the sympathy of others; it was because the death and his part in her life were so utterly unresolved. He would simply not have known how to be.

“What are you doing here
early, sir? I know you’ve become a morning person, but not enough to beat
Wiggins’s strangled little laugh was a relief from Islington’s strangled cries.

Black coat, black hat, white face—Wiggins looked more like the Angel of Death rather than one who probably had in that bag enough benign chemicals to resurrect most of Scotland Yard’s dead.

“Hullo, Wiggins.” Jury wiped his hands across his face and was glad he’d gone back to the flat. He’d certainly have gone back there anyway to let Carole-anne and Mrs. Wassermann know he was all right. No stubble of beard or crumpled shirt to betray a mood.

“You always come in this early?”

“I do my best thinking in the morning,” said Wiggins, sanctimoniously. He emptied the bag, lined up some small brown bottles, a little tin of pastilles, a roll of antacid tablets, and one of those hideous containers of juice with a straw attached, the juice always hitting one in the face when it was prised open and freed of its bubble cover. Wiggins, however, was a master of this sort of exercise: getting cotton out of aspirin bottles, lining up white arrows on safety tops, pushing down with the thumb and turning. He should have been a safecracker.

“You look awful, if you don’t mind my saying it, sir.”

“I feel awful, if you don’t mind my dropping the subject.”

But a crisis on Wiggins’s doorstep was not to be discounted so easily. He had unstoppered one of the brown bottles, zipped open the juice container, poured some into a glass and carefully measured out drops (one, two, three, four) into the apple juice. It turned a sluggish shade of brown.

Jury shook his head. “I’m not drinking that, Sergeant.”

Wiggins was already up and carrying the anodyne to Jury.


“Fix you up in no time—”

“Fill it up with whiskey and give it to Racer.” He was up and putting on his coat. “If you need me, I’ll be at PD.” Jury put a slip of paper on Wiggins’s desk.

“Inspector—Kamir? What’s this about, sir?”

“Case he’s working on.” Jury wished he’d got out the door before Wiggins came in; his throat felt hot and raw. “Possible suicide.”

Wiggins tapped a green and pink capsule into his hand. “He caught the squeal, did he?” He tossed back some water.

“What?” Jury frowned.

“It’s what they say in New York. ‘Caught the squeal.’ ” Wiggins gave Jury a crimped smile. “I’ve read it in books. Superintendent Macalvie’d like that, wouldn’t he? It means—”

“I think I’ve managed to sort it out. Yeah, he caught the squeal.”


Detective Inspector Hanif Kamir had the doleful look of a policeman who had “seen it all” and grown older, but not wiser, from the sight, for Jury wondered what wisdom was to be gained by viewing bodies in alleyways such as this one: an old lady, badly beaten but still breathing. A sour wind swept up the brick alley off Pembroke Villas, carrying with it the stink of dustbin refuse. It ruffled her lace collar as her nearly transparent, blue-veined eyelids opened and shut, opened and shut.

They had taken her purse; she’d been able to tell them she was carrying only four pounds and change. As to wisdom, the old lady was not absorbing a lesson that she would, being the wiser, put to good use.

Neither was Kamir. Neither were the ambulance attendants who were carefully loading her onto a gurney. Her eyelids fluttered and her thin lips moved, repeating that she’d only got the four pounds.

Kamir, his naturally soft voice further softened by the old woman’s fear, murmured something to her that Jury didn’t hear. His own state of mind was muting ordinary city-background noises, muffling the sound of the rear doors of the ambulance closing.

“They told me at headquarters you were here.”

“My sister—my older sister—died this way,” said Kamir, whose notebook’s pages ruffled in that sour breeze.

Jury did not know what to say to this. Selfishly, he wondered if, in the chain of desolate happenings, he would be permitted to wedge in his own pain. “Your sister.”

Kamir nodded. “She was walking home, much like this old woman, to her little terraced house when she was attacked. It was probably because she was so beautiful that they did all their damage to her face. You know it is common practice, part of our religion, for a woman to wear a small jewel implanted in the nostril.” He touched his own. “It was a tiny diamond. I cannot believe they cut off half of her nose to get that diamond. No.”

Jury heard, as if from a great distance, the ambulance wailing in the Lewisham Road.

“They removed her sari, though not the undergarments. She wasn’t raped or molested. But they took the sari, unwound it from her body, and that I found strange. Until I realized that they meant to denude her of her despised heritage.” He closed the notebook and said, “I do not think I am cut out to be a policeman.”

“Who is?”

Kamir looked up at Jury, who was much taller, and nodded. “From what I hear, you perhaps. You have the sixth sense, the intuition for it.”

“I doubt that.”

“Perhaps we could go somewhere else more conducive to conversation. There’s a café round the corner.”

He went over to the police car, said something to the two men there and turned back to walk with Jury down the alley.

 • • • 

The café’s fresh-cut sandwiches and buns beneath their plastic domes already looked stale and wilting and it wasn’t yet ten in the morning. The same sour smell, now mixed with something sickeningly sweet—perhaps the sugary pastries—permeated the narrow takeaway with its single counter running down one wall at which Jury and Kamir sat.

Kamir kept his eyes on the cup of heavily sugared tea Jury had brought him and said, as he slowly stirred it, “I’m sorry about your friend, Mrs. Holdsworth.”

“Yes.” Jury’s own tea remained untasted. “How did you know she was?”

“Oh.” Kamir sipped. “Address book. The number of your flat was also there.”

“Of course.”

“And the calendar. The one in the kitchen she must have used as a sort of engagement book. Appointments, dinner dates.”

Jury was surprised. He’d seen her just once scribble in a doctor’s appointment there. But the excursions into the kitchen were rare. For one thing, she was a rotten cook. He started to smile, stopped. He’d stopped because the memory was painful, but now noticed that Kamir’s eyes were fastened on his face. “What?”

“There are two things,” said Kamir. “One is, why would her son take himself off through a bathroom skylight? I was merely trying to fix up somewhere for him to go, or someone to come and stay with him. He found her—”

“I know.” Jury’s tone was sharp enough to set the inspector back on his stool. More quietly, he said, “I never met her son. But he sounded, from the way Jane talked about him, very resourceful.” His smile was now unchecked. “Skylight in the loo? And you couldn’t find him?”

Kamir’s smile was slight, a man not much used to smiling. “At first he said they had no relations. Then he admitted that there were grandparents in Cumbria.” Kamir flicked through his notebook. “A village called Boone, near Keswick.”

“I doubt he’d have made for there. He and his mother had a great deal of trouble with the grandparents. They wanted custody of the boy.”

Kamir had turned on the stool so that he could lean back against the counter. He was rubbing his shoulder as if the muscle there pained him. “You have no idea, then, where he might be, Superintendent?”

“I just said—wait a minute. You don’t think I
and refuse to tell you? Look, Inspector—”

Kamir’s mouth tilted again in that ghost of a smile.

“Just what
you think?”

Kamir left off kneading the shoulder and turned on his stool for another sip of tea, cold as tears by now. “Would you mind looking at some police photographs of—the victim?” He was opening the manila envelope.


Kamir said nothing, and after a short silence, Jury put out his hand. The air felt so icy that he wouldn’t have been surprised to see his breath like smoke in the café.

She was lying on the chaise lounge in what he knew was her favorite dress. Black velvet. He shut his eyes briefly, blotting out the image and all the images and memories that trailed in the wake of seeing her in this special dress, dead. A recurrent dream returned, one of a black schooner cutting through an equally black sea. The water did not churn or curl or froth, but looked as if it were being cut by scissors and closing seamlessly behind the ship. Over the years, the portals had dimmed to pearls of light, the light shut out by shades; the rolled sails, once ghostly white in the moonlight, turned to dark sticks and the moon itself had gone. It was as if outline stitches in a piece of embroidery had been pulled, leaving only the background.

Jury said, “She was dressed as if she meant to go out.” He handed the photos back, blank-faced.

“Yes. I wondered about this.”

“It was her favorite dress.”

Kamir was silent, considering, and then he said, “Then that perhaps explains it. It is not unusual for a person who . . . in this frame of mind . . .”

Jury knew that Kamir was tactfully negotiating his way around the word. “Who’s suicidal,” he said, evenly.

“Yes. It is not unusual that such a person would choose to look . . . I don’t know quite how to put it; I don’t mean ‘look her best,’ but perhaps imagine others looking at her and wanting to be seen in something she was especially fond of. In other words, not, for many, the tatty dressing gown, the undressed hair. I expect that might surprise others. Why would one care, in that frame of mind? But I’m sorry; you know what I mean.”

“Yes.” It was near enough to the lunch hour that a few customers were straggling in for the fresh-cut sandwiches, the takeaway, milky teas. To him they all looked the same, somehow, overtired, their faces blighted as the girl behind the counter dispensed the buns and teas. It kept his eyes away from the glossy photos beneath Kamir’s arm. He felt completely selfish, self-absorbed, and said, “What about her son? She didn’t know he was coming. Why was he there?”

“I can only assume that he had come down from school for some reason.” Kamir shrugged. “It is regrettable.”

“Yes. What are you doing to locate him?”

“The usual. Wired a picture to provincial forces, especially in Cumbria. But he’s probably in London.”

“Well, he wouldn’t go knocking on the grandparents’ door, that’s for certain. Any results?”

“Again, the usual. A hundred calls at least from people who’ve seen a lad answering that description.”

“What about—” Jury had to clear his throat. “The autopsy? When’s it going to be done?”

“I’m not sure. Tomorrow, possibly.”

“Look, would you mind very much getting either Dr. Cooper or Dr. Nancy? Do you know them?”

Kamir jotted down the names. “Willie Cooper, yes. Not Dr. Nancy.”

“Phyllis Nancy. I think they’re the best we’ve got. And to be frank, well, I can talk to them . . . more easily.”

“Certainly.” Then he fell silent.

Kamir was silent in a certain way. It was a listening, expectant silence, thought Jury. And he imagined what Kamir was waiting for—something more than he’d got as yet from Jury. “I was going to marry her. Or, I should say, I was going to ask her—” He had not taken the ring box from his pocket; he had very nearly believed, before he saw the pictures, that its presence in his pocket had the potency of—what? Wiggins’s belief in charcoal biscuits and rue. That at least broke some sort of spell. Jury put the box on the counter, saying, “I bought this yesterday.”

Kamir, who Jury had come to realize had a great delicacy, made no move to touch it. He merely looked at the little burgundy box, its velvet rubbed from much handling, and finally said, “I thought perhaps . . . well, since the calendar had your name written in so often, so very often . . . that the relationship might be very close. I can only repeat, I’m so sorry.” He rushed on. “It amazes me that people seem to think of the suicide (at least if they can be sympathetic, and many can’t) as a person who merely wants ‘to end it all,’ without considering the complexities. . . . It is a very complicated act, I think. I wonder sometimes if the whole gestalt of the act does not encompass in the mind of the victim what he thinks to be the
resolution of every conflict that has ever plagued him. Don’t you think so?”

“Not in the case of Jane, no. She was too attached to her son, for one thing.”

Kamir looked up from his empty cup. “And to you.”

Jury picked up the red box. “Perhaps not. I might have totally misread her.” He could not keep the bitterness from his tone. He felt, he might as well admit it, duped.

“It’s possible your anger is clouding your judgment.”

“I’m not—oh, the hell with it. Yes, I am angry.”

Kamir nodded in understanding. “We were speaking of the dress. But I was wondering about the shoes.”


In his diffident way, as if not wanting to burden Jury with any more than he had to, he gently pushed one of the photos toward him. It showed Jane Holdsworth stretched out full length on the chaise lounge. Her feet were stockinged, but she was not wearing shoes. Jury remembered looking at the black pumps, set so carefully together beside the bed. “I must be dim, Mr. Kamir, but I don’t know what you mean. If she took a handful of pills, it’s unlikely she meant to go for a stroll.” Abruptly, he shoved the photo back.

“My point is that if she had imagined, before she took those pills, her own appearance—as we were remarking about the dress—then why did she not put on the shoes?”

BOOK: The Old Contemptibles
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