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Authors: Martha Grimes

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BOOK: The Old Contemptibles
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He decided his throat was not his own; it was William Smythe’s. William Smythe would have got hysterical, would have screamed and kicked the cops, just the way he did when he missed the goal at soccer. Kicked the goalie.

William Smythe’s mother and father were exactly like William. No matter what William did, it was the school’s fault. Bricks flew out to hit William in the head; pavements flew up to flatten his nose; fists flew into his face. (Well,
that
was true enough.)

And Alex’s own mother was like
Alex; he
was goddamned if he’d let anybody—police, anybody—put it out his mum had killed herself.

She hadn’t; she wouldn’t. He knew this as well as he knew the outlines of the cooker, table, fridge and the cup of Rombouts he was raising to his lips.

She simply wouldn’t do it to him.

When he was certain that the police constable outside hadn’t heard anything and didn’t know anyone was in here, he would go upstairs again.

It was stupid speculating, but he couldn’t stop his mind from going round and round. Would they say she’d died from an “accidental overdose”? He dismissed this immediately. She wasn’t careless. Certainly, she wasn’t “unstable,” much as the Holdsworths loved to think she was.

That supposedly good-humored yet long-suffering sigh from Genevieve . . .
“You just have such
bad
luck with jobs, don’t you, Jane?”
His mother did not “lose” jobs. If an art gallery closed, it was hardly her fault the gallery didn’t need her anymore. If a temp sec employer tried to toss her in bed (Alex knew what the vaguely mentioned “trouble” meant), she could hardly have been blamed for leaving his employment.

And then there was always the bit about his mum’s own small inheritance:
“You’ve just run through your money, Jane, like some tout at Newmarket races. . . .”

If there was one thing Alex knew it was how hard she tried to budget the money so that it would last, and that she’d no head for figures. If there was another thing he knew, it was Newmarket races.

She wouldn’t take money from his great-grandfather Adam, who had tried to press something, some little stipend, on her. He was the only one of them Alex liked and trusted, the only one who didn’t somehow imply his mother was responsible for his father’s death.

Alex couldn’t think about his father. Not now.

Oh, fuck them.

He shoved the cold coffee away with one hand; his other went to the tissue-wrapped revolver in his jacket pocket. Taking the box from the bedside table had been a kind of reflex action; he hadn’t known why he’d done it.

Yes, he did. He might need it.

His mum hadn’t died of “natural causes”; there was nothing seriously wrong with her. And she hadn’t killed herself. That didn’t leave much room for speculation.

8

Carole-anne Palutski took the call while she was doing a sausage, onion and potato fry-up in Richard Jury’s kitchen.

The voice at the other end was hollow, one of those voices that made you think the mouth was covered in cobwebs; but it still wallowed in officialdom.

Officialdom never impressed Carole-anne. On the contrary, it only tempted her to make clattering sounds with pans and spoons as the caller demanded to know who this was.

“This
just ’appens—happens” (she snatched the
h
from the linoleum along with a wilted onion ring) “to be Mr. Jury’s assistant. . . . Well,
I
really don’t know where he is, do I? It’s not yet eleven, so the pubs’re still open, and after all I expect he needs his bit of fun just like you and me.
We’re
up, ain . . . aren’t we?”

The demanding voice was replaced with a kinder, warmer one. It was important, you see. Although Carole-anne had every intention herself of giving the super what-for because she’d been planning to have him take her down the pub, to the Angel in Islington, still she wasn’t about to let some stupid git of a copper jump all over Jury with his own problems—although she had to admit this one seemed much more pleasant than the chief superintendent, who Carole-anne had decided was a pervert.

Holding the receiver on her shoulder, she picked up the pan,
flopped the sausages with a spatula while the voice grew more insistent. He needed the superintendent straightaway and would she tell him to call the moment he arrived? The voice was so mellifluous it was almost weepy. Carole-anne wondered what a hound dog would sound like if it could talk. “And
whom
might I say is calling?” She chewed a slice of nicely browned potato as she peered at her toes. She’d never go back to Pertfeet for a pedicure. . . . “What? Well just hang on a tic whilst I get . . .” She rummaged in a jam jar for a pencil. Honestly, some people. Thought you walked round all day with a notepad in your hand. “Yes . . . yes. I got it.
Thank
you very much.” She rang off before he could and stabbed the sausages about as she heard the front door of the Islington house open and shut.

 • • • 

Jury’s ground-floor flat was seldom locked, a fact that the elderly basement tenant had often taken him to task for.

Carole-anne would only pick the lock, he’d said to Mrs. Wassermann.

Mrs. Wassermann never listened to criticism of Carole-anne. Such an example for a policeman to set, Mr. Jury. She’d shaken and shaken her head.

 • • • 

This poor role-model of a policeman walked into his flat at eleven
P.M.
and tossed his keys on the table. He wasn’t especially surprised to see Miss Palutski there; he hoped the building’s smoke detectors were working given the apparent flammability of his kitchen—though he wasn’t sure whether it rose from the frying sausages or Carole-anne herself, her red hair looking charged and her dress an electric-blue, out-of-fashion mini that would rush right back into fashion as soon as the men eyeballed its wearer.

He sniffed the air as he dropped his keys on the coffee table. “Your own cooker break down? And why the hell are you cooking anyway at this hour?” he asked irritably. He was tired from too much walking, bench-sitting, thinking.

“Well,
thank
you very much! And after I’ve gone to all the trouble of doing you a meal.” Actually, she was doing it for herself; she was starving after nothing but three half-pints and a package of crisps at the Angel.

“Not for me, thanks,” he said as he saw her beginning to divide up what was in the frying pan.

“After all the trouble . . . ,” she said righteously, shrugging her shoulders and sliding what was on his plate to hers. “Probably had your dinner with JH, I expect.” She sat down in the sprung easy chair with her plate on her knees.

“Wrong, CA. It was a drink with JK.”

Carole-anne looked up suddenly. All of the super’s women were initials except for her.

He slid down on the sofa and clasped his hands behind his neck.
“Lady
JK. What’s this?” He saw the message under the telephone.

“You got a call.
Who
is Lady—”

Jury frowned. “I can’t read this . . . Kahmur? Who’s he?”

“Some copper. Wants you to call. You mean you gave JH the boot?” She was cutting sausage with a flourish; the news there might be a new woman was not, as he expected, bad news. She sighed as she watched him dial. “I wish you’d get a touch-tone. Broke a nail on that dial, I did, last week.”

“Dial with your toe. Hello? Inspector Kahmur—”

“Ka-
mir,”
Carole-anne corrected him, as if he should, after all, be able to read minds. “Sounded sad.”

“Sad?”

“I didn’t know police had those kind of feelings.” She stared at him, chewing, ducking as he tossed a small pillow.

“Inspector Kamir? Richard Jury. You called—”

Kamir’s voice was soft and plodding, having discovered
in the course of inquiries, Mr. Jury,
that the woman was a friend of the superintendent. The inspector spoke each word slowly, as if it were a drop of oil falling into water to hang suspended before the next one followed.

But each hit with the force of a projectile as Jury moved the receiver away and stared at it, blinking. The voice, tiny now, kept on. He brought the phone back to his ear, said nothing into what was now a silence, heard the inspector ask if Jury could see him as soon as possible. Yes.

The receiver dangling from his hand, he hadn’t known whether he’d spoken the word aloud, or that he’d said aloud
Jane’s dead.
But he must have done, for there was a click at the other end and he saw Carole-anne’s deep blue eyes widen, saw her rise from the chair, the
plate sliding from her lap, but all in slow motion. Even though she must be rushing toward him, knocking over the table, it seemed more like an underwater propulsion. Swimming against air. His senses were so dulled he heard nothing, not the plate nor the cutlery clatter, nor the table thud down.

Carole-anne was crying, her face baby-red and twisted and then thrust into his chest, her arms around his neck.

He just sat there, doing nothing, letting them drown.

And then the dulled senses became heightened and he realized she was on the phone, yelling for Mrs. W. to come, and what seemed vague and shadowy darkness broke into scorching light.

Jury pushed Carole-anne aside and made for the stairs and the street. Pulling open the door of his car, he didn’t answer Mrs. Wassermann, who was heaving up the steps from her basement flat.

What he saw in his rearview mirror was an elderly lady with her dressing gown clutched round her, standing in the middle of an Islington street.

9

Rain had started up again, a real downpour, while he’d been sitting at the kitchen table in the dark—for how long? Five or fifty minutes; he couldn’t tell.

Alex put the automatic on the table and studied it. It was a Webley, small and snubnosed. His Uncle George had given it to her.
Given where you live
 . . . Alex shook his head. You’d think it was Brixton.

They lived off the Lewisham road, near Blackheath. It was quiet; it was pretty, it was south of the Thames. Alex loved the vast green. Naturally, there had been repeated injunctions to keep the gun out of the boy’s reach.

What a prayer. Alex was the one who’d sorted out the problem of where to keep it and where to keep the ammunition, too. Hidden, but within reach.

The slanting downpour changed to veils that rose and fell like delicate curtains and then hissed against the dark panes.

Alex jumped when he heard the front door open and close, heard feet pounding up the stairway.

They weren’t back, were they? But it was only one person, one person who had run up the stairs and whom he could hear, now, moving about in his mum’s room.

Alex stared up at the ceiling.

2

Jury wasn’t expecting to find some telltale bit of evidence that had eluded Detective Inspector Kamir when he got to the house in Lewisham. Forensics would have gone over every inch.

The constable at the door had been surprised to see him, not so much him but the manner of his entrance, leaving the young policeman telling empty air, that, yes, sir, he could—

 • • • 

The dread of rooms from which someone had vanished was that they still clung to the presence of the one gone. The scarf draped round one of the bed’s posters; the silver-backed brush, the spill of rosy powder on the dressing table; the slippers neatly aligned by the bed.

How could insensate
things
make the air swirl with such expectancy? That he could hear her step in the hall, that she would appear in the doorway . . .

. . .
an overdose.

“Have you ever known anyone who could OD on One-a-Day?”
she’d said, laughing.

“Yes. My sergeant.”
More seriously, Jury had asked,
“Do you get them all from the same chemist?”

“No. I go all over London in dark glasses or disguised as a little lady in a shawl. Of course I get them from one chemist!”

 • • • 

Jury had touched nothing in the room, only stood in its center, looking around him. Kamir did not think the overdose was accidental.

Yet, why suicide? She’d had every reason not to do that. There was her son; there was, he hoped, himself.

My God. Alex. He’d found her.

3

Alex sat in the dark listening to the silence. What was he doing? It wasn’t, at least it didn’t sound like, the policeman Kamir. That step
had been light, almost lithesome. Inspector Kamir was not a big man.

Finally, he heard the person above move, heard steps descending. Heavy, dull, slow steps. It was, Alex thought, the way he himself had rushed up the stairs and would have been the way he’d come down again. Had this person run up, happily expecting to find his mum? Don’t be stupid; there’s a cop at the door.

And yet it had sounded like an echo, a ghost of Alex’s own homecoming.

He sat with his chin on his chest, the gun on the table, trying not to fall asleep.

10

He was still sitting in his office as he had been just before dawn, pulling the little brass chain of his desk lamp on and off, absently. He’d turn from watching the shadows spring up on the wall to watching the gray morning light sift across the window.

Accident or design . . .
he heard the voice of Kamir again and felt the man’s voice and words had a strangely poetic quality, brooding words out of an Elizabethan drama.

The thought of suicide was so unspeakable. . . .

Say it; there was a part of Jane’s mind to which he had never been admitted; a part she had held away from him, not, he thought, in the secretive sense of holding back—though, God knows, there could easily have been secrets. It was something isolating: a suggestion that he couldn’t, in some things, be trusted.

He shut his eyes, hard. Anger and betrayal threatened to override grief and remorse. For a moment he hated her for so determinedly refusing to let him see the depth of her unhappiness.

Only a phone call away . . . that’s all he’d been.

But perhaps that was a contradiction in terms for one set on ending one’s life. Suicide was, after all, a closed world. If you could admit someone else into it, it would open.

BOOK: The Old Contemptibles
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