Read The Scent of Murder Online
Authors: Felicity Young
‘Exactly. And the old feather-lined bird’s nest in the privet is where the Fairy King lies in comfort with his concubines.’
Florence raised her eyebrows. ‘Sounds a bit saucy.’
‘Oh, fairies are not bound by the same rules as we are.’
‘Then single lady fairies do not require chaperones?’
‘Definitely not. Provided the feelings are mutual, boy and girl fairies may behave as they wish.’
Florence laughed. ‘What a wonderful imagination you have.’
Tristram lowered his eyes. ‘It’s fun to pretend. One can spend too much time dwelling on life’s sorrows, don’t you think?’
His playful mood seemed to have quickly evaporated. He had been such fun at her parents’ house, Florence reflected, but seemed almost a different man here. Not that she really minded; it showed he had depth, that he did not deserve the playboy label Dody had tagged him with. Florence wished to God he would tell her what was troubling him, though.
She joined him on the bench and for a moment neither spoke. She remembered when she was working as a volunteer in his campaign office, folding pamphlets. Her suffragette division had been supporting Tristram in his fight for the seat of Maidstone. He was a fully paid-up member of the Male League for Women’s Suffrage and, if elected, had intended to provide the suffragettes with a strong voice in parliament. They had known in their hearts that he had but a slim chance of winning over the staunchly Conservative electorate, that his intense speeches about the inevitability of change and franchise for all would pass over most heads. Tristram was pathologically unable to lie (unlike the poet) and the people did not want the truth. Even the Labour Party officials had known Tristram’s campaign was doomed before it had begun. They must have thought it safer to taint a newcomer with the odour of defeat than risk a more valuable party member. He’d been nothing but cannon fodder to them. ‘More time for my archaeological studies now, I suppose,’ he’d said, without bitterness or rancour, when news of his defeat reached him.
He now took hold of her hand, cold despite her long evening gloves, and pulled it into the pocket of his coat. ‘I’m sorry about this evening, Flo. I expect you want to go home now.’
‘A man cannot choose his relatives, Tristram.’
Tristram snorted, so unlike him. ‘
drew some lucky cards.’
‘I assure you my parents can give equal offence and more, to those they find truly distasteful.’
‘Actually, I’m quite fond of my parents. Uncle Desmond does not think much of my father, though. Jealous, I think. You see, my father is from an established bloodline and Sir Desmond is not.’
‘You sound as if you’re talking of horse pedigrees.’
‘Not much difference, really. And it’s a bloodline that, theoretically, I am no part of, so no threat, you see. I think that’s why Uncle Desmond tolerates me, seems quite fond of me, even.’
Florence laughed, then wished she could take it back when Tristram’s expression told her he had not been joking. ‘What on earth are you talking about?’ she asked with concern.
‘I’m trying to tell you that I was adopted, Flo.’
For once she was at a loss for words.
‘I expect you
want to go home now,’ he added gloomily.
Anything but, Florence thought, despite being stunned by his revelation. I’ve been looking for depth, for the real Tristram, and now I have found him. This explains so much. How wonderful that he chooses to confide his secret to me.
Florence lifted his chin with her gloved hand and made him meet her eyes. ‘Would a fairy princess worry about her prince’s annoying relatives, especially if they aren’t really his relatives at all? I thought the fairy kingdom was above such earthly pettiness.’
‘No, I suppose not, but we’re not fair—’
‘Oh, do be quiet, Tristram,’ she said, pulling his head towards hers.
A stout woman stood a few yards away from Pike. With her back towards him, she turned the key in the lock of the post-office door. The closed sign was clearly visible through the glass — his watch was slow. Damn it. He hurried across the damp footpath, clearing his throat as he approached so as not to startle her.
‘Good evening, Madam.’ He tipped his hat. ‘I have an urgent telegram to send. Would you be so kind as to open up for me?’
‘It’s Miss,’ the woman snapped. ‘And no, I won’t. We’ve been closed for over five minutes now and I never make exceptions.’
Pike’s fingers lingered on the warrant card in his coat pocket. He could force her with the weight of the law, tell her it was a police emergency — which it wasn’t — and then she would have no choice but to co-operate, but that was not how he did things.
The woman’s umbrella whooshed open, one of the spokes just missing his eye, and she gave him a haven’t-you-got-a-home-to-go-to look.
No, actually, not at the moment, he thought, as he watched the postmistress stride off, feet slapping the footpath. He pulled out his fob and gave it a wind. It was only six o’clock — five past, he corrected himself — and unless there was a development in the case, he had a long wait ahead of him. In the unlikely event that the fugitive’s whereabouts
discovered that evening, he’d instructed Sergeant Gibbs to send for him at the Seven Seagulls.
The over-furnished lodging house he’d been staying in for the duration of his time in Hastings had no appeal other than as a place to lay his head. He had soon tired of his landlady’s indifferent cooking and the stories of the African War her husband had regaled him with when he’d discovered that Pike was a veteran too. Pike’s limp, though much improved by the operation Dody had arranged for him, still gave him away, and unavoidable questions were often asked.
Was it shrapnel? You were an officer? Seventh Lancers and now police, you say?
Yes to all of the above, with no elaboration. Pike had always hated being the centre of attention. He gave no answer at all when questioned about his role in the Bloemfontein concentration camp. He had resigned his commission over conditions there, but not soon enough. The images of the diseased and starving Boer women and children would always be with him, painted on his mind in colours of guilt and shame. In war, one became used to the sight of dead men, but women and children? He shook his head; that was a different matter.
There had been times, he thought without bitterness, when life would have been a lot easier if he had been able to allow such injustices to wash over his head — he might have made police superintendent or even army colonel by now. Despite all of his setbacks he had continued with as staunch a faith (or was it naive credulity?) in his country’s justice and military systems as he had in his Anglicanism. It wasn’t the institutions themselves that let his country down, just some of the men involved in them. Dody had once laughingly said that, in his own way, he was as much of a non-conformist as any member of her family; something he’d thought absurd at the time. Recently, though, he had begun to ponder the truth of her words.
He turned his back on the post office and began to make his way down the hill towards the sea front, his cane, now a habit more than a necessity, tapping to the rhythm of his footsteps. Despite the impending storm, the road was busy with horse-drawn and motorised traffic. Hawkers cried above the din:
Cockles and mussels alive, alive-oh! Eel pies, kippers and tender curling whelks!
in the same rhythms as the London newsboys.
Pike bought a pie and ate it where he stood, sheltering from the wind in a doorway, using the heel of his boot to beat out a syncopated accompaniment to the cranked-out music of a hurdy-gurdy player. A group of little girls danced to the merry music while a monkey, wearing a tasselled fez, leaped about collecting money for his master. Pike finished his pie and flicked a ha’penny into the creature’s box. Nodding his thanks to the hurdy-gurdy man, he turned up his collar and moved on.
Once Pike reached the front, the crash of the waves drowned out the noises of the street above. Fishing boats bobbed about in the water, their lights winking through the sea spray, waiting it out as long as possible before the storm drove them in. Soon all but the sturdiest of craft would be hauled up onto the shingle. Horses had dragged the bathing machines away long before Pike’s arrival at the seaside town.
He paused outside the Seven Seagulls, a bastion of light and noise that he had no desire to breach at present. There was an iron bench near the entry. He would sit there for a while until the cold drove him in. Dody was always telling him to be more sociable. With her there it was easy, but when he was by himself the old taciturnity seemed to come back: the distrust, the reluctance to make new friends in case old wounds were opened up by fresh betrayals.
Ragged boys played an improvised rugby game on the gas-lit promenade, tossing about a pig’s-bladder ball, oblivious to the weather. Pike watched with amusement as they attempted to dodge the occasional hardy evening stroller, until a top-hatted gentleman ended their fun by rapping one of the players on the head with his walking stick. The gentleman shook his fist as the boys ran off. Pike heard one lad call out to his mates, ‘To the chippy,’ and another, ‘The tripe barrow.’ Chips and tripe; Pike hadn’t dined on the delicacy since he was a lad in Yorkshire. He wished he had not eaten the eel pie; it sat in his stomach now like a leaden fishing weight.
A drunk staggered out through the tavern’s swinging door. Unaware of Pike, he unbuttoned himself and urinated on the footpath, missing Pike’s shoes by a matter of inches, piss steaming in the chilly night air.
Ridiculous, Pike thought, I can’t stay out here all night. He left the bench and followed the drunk, pushing his way into the tavern, hoping none of the men from the Hastings police station would be there.
With his damp outdoor clothes over his arm, he paid tuppence for a dark ale and searched the crowded room for a vacant table. His eyes rested on the only empty seat in the room: the piano stool. He tipped his head in the piano’s direction and the barman nodded his assent. At last, here was something he could lose himself in. He limbered his fingers up with a slow love song. As he played he thought of Dody, wondering what she was doing now, wishing she were sitting by his side. Their duets invariably ended with her slamming her palms upon the keys and bemoaning her lack of technique. After which she would find a comfortable chair and curl up in it, and he would play for her, telling her how much he loved her in ways that came much more easily than words.
An old sailor began to sob into his ale. This won’t do, I’ll be joining him if I’m not careful, Pike thought, switching to more lively traditional songs: ‘The British Grenadiers’, ‘The Vicar of Bray’, and then the Gilbert and Sullivan ditty ‘Three Little Maids from School’.
The crowd was warming up, stamping their feet and singing the lyrics falsetto. Someone bought Pike another ale and placed it on the piano for him. And then, just as the music was beginning to work its magic, a firm hand tapped him on the shoulder. He turned without breaking rhythm and found himself looking up into the pinched young face of Constable Wilde from the Hastings police station.
‘It’s time, Chief Inspector, sir. We’ve found ’im.’
Pike stood with his companions in the porch of the crumbling terrace house. Behind them in the darkness, the sea sucked at the shingle beach. Above the roar, seagulls cried and wheeled.
Five and twenty ponies trotting through the dark;
Brandy for the parson, ’baccy for the clerk.
Laces for a lady, letters for a spy,
And watch the wall my darling while the gentlemen go by!
Ever since he had been handed the case, Pike had not been able to get the galloping rhythms of Mr Kipling’s
from his head. Well, soon, with any luck, this assignment would be concluded, his part in the case closed, and the poem banished for good.
He pulled his revolver from his pocket, cracked the barrel then snapped it shut. They were taking no chances. The fellow had already killed one policeman and a few more would make no difference to him; a man could hang only once. ‘Sergeant Gibbs, take an officer with you around the back,’ he said.
Sergeant Gibbs gestured to one of the constables and they made their way off.
Pike counted to twenty in his head, time enough for them to get around the building and cover the rear. Their quarry occupied the ground-floor flat so there would be no desperate leap from an upstairs window.
‘Ready?’ he asked Wilde and a beefier, older lad whose name he couldn’t remember. They nodded and stooped to pick up the battering ram. Pike stepped aside. ‘On the count of three. One … two …’
The front door gave way to the sound of splintering wood. The constables rushed in. Pike picked up the lantern and followed. They found themselves in a high-ceilinged hallway with nothing in it but a filthy rag mat. A light flashed from under one of the doors. They heard the thump of feet on floorboards. Pike set the lantern down and tightened his grip on the revolver.
‘Police! Stay where you are,’ the officers cried as they shouldered the door open.
From the bed, a wild-haired African woman screamed. A naked white man turned from the sash window and loosed a shot. Pike flinched as plaster pattered onto his bowler. He returned fire and struck his target in the foot. The man cursed and fell, his pistol skidding across the boards.
The woman continued to scream, filthy bedding pulled up to her neck. The older constable slapped her hard across the face. ‘Shut yer cake-’ole, black bitch.’
Pike looked up and frowned. ‘Steady on, that’s no way to treat a lady.’
Wilde sniggered; he thought Pike was making a joke.
Pike handcuffed the injured man, then paused to knock the plaster from his bowler — a new hat, confound it.
‘That’s no lady, that’s Darkie Doris, Chief Inspector,’ the older man said, adding with a wink, ‘We all know Doris, don’t we, Wilde?’
The younger man squirmed.