Authors: Janet Laurence
and in memeory of her parents,
Jeanie and Michael Sayers
The battle for women’s suffrage had been joined long before Emmeline Pankhurst raised its level to militancy. An excellent history of the whole campaign and the ideas behind it is
The Ascent of Woman
by Melanie Phillips, published by Little, Brown in 2003. Concerning poison, two books I found most helpful were
Poison and Poisoning
by Celia Kellett, published by Accent Press Ltd in 2009, and
The Poisoner’s Handbook
by Deborah Blum, published by Penguin Books in 2011.
Helena Rubinstein’s autobiography,
My Life for Beauty
, published by The Bodley Head, in 1965, inspired my creation of
And Larry Lamb’s story for the BBC’s series
Who Do You Think You Are
produced the setting for the book’s first chapter.
I would like to thank Michael Thomas for reading and advising on the ms, my agent Jane Conway Gordon for her expert help and support, and the Mystery Press editors Matilda Richards and Emily Locke for their care and attention in the publication of this book. Finally many thanks to Shelley Bovey and Georgie Newbery, who have critiqued every stage of the writing of this book and without whom it would not have reached THE END. And to Peter Lovesey for his wonderful tag line. Any resemblance of the characters to actual persons, living or dead, can only be by coincidence, and all mistakes are mine.
In the centre of London, just off the junction of busy Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street, was the jungle. A large carved screen carried images of wild animals: leaping lions, stalking ostriches, giraffes, monkeys, dancing bears, elephants. Ursula Grandison was captivated; surely no jungle could have contained all these animals? She remembered mountain lions back in the Sierra Nevada, where she’d lived in a mining camp. She’d heard one roar on a winter’s night, imagined it starving, seeking food, and had shivered in her makeshift bunk. Now she heard another lion’s roar, not coming through the silence of snow-covered mountains but rising over the crunch and clatter of traffic on a hot August afternoon in London.
Along one side of an opening in this show-stopping screen Ursula saw the words
Crystal Palace Menagerie
and along the other,
Patronised by Nobility and Gentry
. A white-faced clown banged a drum in front, calling in the Londoners who thronged around the fair.
‘Something, ain’t it?’ said Thomas Jackman. He slipped a thumb inside an armhole of his waistcoat and sounded as proud of the scene as if he owned all of it himself. ‘That’s what’s known as “the flash”.’ He waved an arm at the screen. ‘In the trade they say “It ain’t the show that brings the dough, it’s the flash what brings the cash.” That’s what’s attracting all these folk.’
Ursula smiled at her stocky friend. When she had arrived in London, Jackman had been the only person she had contacted. A fresh start was what she needed, she told herself, after her tragic stay in the West Country. She had accepted his invitation for this afternoon with delight and met him at the fairground with real warmth.
Now, though, she saw the way his sharp eyes surveyed the crowds that excitedly pushed towards the opening, paying their entrance fee to view the wild beasts within.
‘Thomas Jackman, you haven’t asked me along here as a treat, you are on a job!’
He gave her a comradely grin. ‘I knew you were a fly one, Miss Grandison.’
She swallowed what she told herself was unreasonable disappointment. ‘Come on, now; didn’t we agree we’d drop the formalities, that you’d call me Ursula and I’d call you Thomas? After all, I’m a Yankee, not one of your high-falutin’ society women.’
‘American you are, and maybe not a society woman, but you got style, Miss Grand–, Ursula.’ He stood a little back from her and appraised her cream cambric shirt with its small red buttons and brown linen skirt trimmed with a band of darker brown just up from its hem.
‘Don’t try and soft talk me, Thomas. How dare you invite me here on my afternoon off on false pretences.’
‘You send me a note suggesting I might like to visit what you call “an amazing menagerie”. You do not tell me the famous detective is on a job and needs a respectable companion for cover.’
He looked injured, ‘A suspicious mind, that’s what you got, Miss Ursula Grandison.’ Then he grinned at her again, ‘Didn’t I say you were a fly one? I should have known I couldn’t fool you for more than a minute. How did you catch on so quick?’
Disappointment over, she felt an odd satisfaction that she had seen through his little ploy. When they had first met, it had taken her some time to feel comfortable with this sharp-minded ex-policeman. But he’d earned her respect and for a very short time they had formed something approaching a detection partnership. However, she had no wish to continue the professional association.
‘You should have paid more attention to your female companion and less to searching out your mark. Isn’t that what you call a person you are trying to follow?’
‘That’s what a conman calls his potential victim.’
‘Not so different, I think.’
He gave a quick sigh and slipped his hand beneath her elbow. ‘Miss Grandison, Ursula, shall we proceed to view the menagerie?’ he said with exaggerated courtesy.
‘By all means, Mr Jackman, I shall be delighted. And at least I can assume that the entrance charge will be covered by your expenses.’
As she and Jackman moved towards the gap in the beautifully decorated screen, Ursula could not help looking around to try and identify who it was that the detective was interested in.
It was a varied crowd, all intent on seeing the wild beasts presented for their entertainment. It was too early in the afternoon for tradesmen and other workers; these were mainly wives and mothers with children. Like herself, they were dressed respectably but not in the height of fashion and from the middle to lower classes rather than the cream of society. Here and there were men as well, some accompanying women, others who looked as though they were idling away the afternoon. Ursula made sure her purse was securely fastened to her belt.
Then she felt Jackman’s hold on her elbow tighten. She followed his gaze. A woman and a man were entering the menagerie ahead of them. They seemed rather more stylish than the other sightseers. What, she wondered, was her companion’s interest in them?
Thomas Jackman had once been a member of the elite detective division of the Metropolitan Police Force; now he acted in a private capacity, which could mean anything from finding a long-lost relative, through dealing with stolen goods by owners who did not want to involve the authorities, to solving a mysterious death, which had been his commission when they first met. From what Jackman had told her, however, Ursula gained the impression he was most often called upon to obtain evidence of an adulterous relationship.
Once through the entrance, they found themselves in a huge tent supported by poles down its centre. The bright sunshine penetrated the canvas and clearly lit a variety of cages set around three sides. Lazy growls and grunts from bored animals mixed with excited comments from the visitors. Ursula’s nose twitched at the aroma of feral beasts, stained sawdust and the more familiar scent of human bodies overdressed on a hot day. By the sounds emanating from where the crowd was thickest, the most popular exhibits were lions.
Jackman steered Ursula towards a less populated part of the tent. A young woman, a dark-haired girl wearing a floppy cream beret over a long plait, studied a somnolent hyena. Her burnt-orange linen jacket and skirt was creased in the manner of that material, giving the impression of someone who cared little about her appearance. Further along the cage stood the couple the detective seemed to be interested in.
The woman looked to be in her late twenties and was stylishly dressed in a well-cut pale green suit trimmed with lace, her blonde hair carefully arranged beneath a graceful hat of fine straw trimmed with green flowers. Her hands, in cream kid gloves, clasped and unclasped themselves, the fingers writhing in a constant pattern of distress as the woman surveyed the trampled ground around them, her gaze moving everywhere except up at the man. He seemed to be pleading with her.
He was tall, with a shock of dark red hair almost hidden by a large hat with a floppy brim. Ursula recognised the look, she had seen it in New York; he was a Bohemian, an artist perhaps. A loosely tailored jacket in brown and beige checks and rumpled light beige trousers reinforced this impression. She could only see a bit of his profile, a straight nose and well-shaped chin, but his shoulders looked broad as he leaned slightly forward, as though imploring the woman to look at him, to listen to his words.
Jackman had positioned Ursula and himself before a wide gap in the three-sided arrangement of cages. Blank canvas hung over what could perhaps be an exit. Beside it was a low table covered with a cloth that reached to the ground. The cage they stood beside contained a couple of stately ostriches, their extravagantly feathered behinds looking dusty and bedraggled. Curiously small heads, held proudly above long necks, bore pop eyes that surveyed the scene with disinterest, then they bent to the floor and pecked at the straw in a desultory way.
Ursula, though, was far more interested in the little scene being played out by the pair near the hyena. The man reached forward to take the woman’s restless hands. After the shortest of struggles, she allowed him to hold them, lying limply in his, his solid thumbs caressing their backs. All at once, the girl studying the somnolent animal glanced sharply in her and Jackman’s direction and Ursula transferred her attention to the birds.
Where, she wondered idly, did ostriches come from? Africa? She turned to ask Jackman, but he’d moved to the table. From beneath its cloth, he fished out a Box Brownie camera. None of the happy crowds in the tent noticed, they all had their backs to him and were far too interested in the wild beasts.
He seemed to be preparing to take a photograph of the couple. Ursula looked back at them, wondering if there was enough light for a successful photograph; the sunlight was bright but filtered through canvas.
The woman at last turned her gaze up to the man and Ursula was struck by the beauty of her eyes. They were deep violet and had a rare radiance. She said something; her whole face lit up with joy and her hands moved to clasp the man’s tightly.
Jackman moved stealthily to his right, trying to position the camera so he could achieve the shot he needed. Before he was ready, though, the girl with the plait abandoned the hyena, raced towards the detective and barged into him. He dropped the camera. The girl somehow scrambled up on to the table, put her fingers in her mouth and produced a stunningly loud whistle.