Authors: Peter Lovesey
THE DETECTIVE WORE SILK DRAWERS
WOBBLE TO DEATH
A RED BADGE NOVEL OF SUSPENSE
Dodd, Mead & Company, New York
Copyright © Peter Lovesey 1972
All rights reserved
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the publisher
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 72-3146
Printed in the United States of America
SHE BURST INTO NUMBER 4 dressing-room at the Middlesex and wrenched down her spangled bodice to the waist. ‘You see that?’ she demanded, in case anyone was not riveted by the spectacle. ‘A bruise like a set of Crimea medals! The hussy! The stupid, fumbling baggage!’
Jason Buckmaster, rhetorician, elocutionist to Royalty and privileged at that moment to be in the female dressing-room, raised a disciplined eyebrow. ‘An abrasion, Miss Lola? How damnably inconvenient. Does one gather that the sisterly rapport was a little less than perfect on the high trapeze tonight?’
‘Bloody near killed me, that’s all!’ responded Lola with quivering indignation. ‘In me death-defying leap, too. You’ve seen the end of the act when she swings out to meet me as I dive for her ankles? Well, the silly bitch went too soon and caught me full in the chest with her great feet. I found meself in agony, dangling over the bloody audience with me arms round—if you’ll forgive the expression—her thighs, and precious near dragging off her tights to hold on. Me eyes was watering with pain and I must have been pink with the shame of it. We hung there for two minutes before Mr Winter thought of pulling us in with a window-pole. Like two perishing trout on a line. It ain’t dignified for a serious artiste.’ She glanced down at the strawberry-coloured blotch. ‘And it don’t do nothing for a girl’s prospects.’
From deep in Buckmaster’s vocal organs came an unmistakable purring. ‘Prospects?’ He smiled. ‘“For wheresoe’er I turn my ravished eyes, Gay gilded scenes and shining prospects rise.”’
‘Nothing, my dear. A snatch of Addison, and in a different context. Forgive me. I have nothing but concern for your disfiguration. If it were any consolation at all I would observe that your—er—prospects are unimpaired. I shall leave you now, before Miss Bella returns. The disclosure of a second set of injuries might affect me profoundly.’
A vast man, he flitted away with the unobtrusiveness of a veteran haunter of dressing-rooms.
‘Barmy,’ decided Lola.
The only others present, a mother and daughter from Marseilles who spoke no English and spent up to an hour before each performance applying rouge and powder in order to shout ‘Allez!’ and lift their right arms as Papa performed feats of equilibrium, ignored Lola. She, clicking her tongue in exasperation, gave her full attention to the blemish, presenting it to the mirror from an assortment of angles. Then she ran some water into the basin in front of her and plunged her hands in to clean off the resin.
The door opened. Lola’s double, blonde, spangled, pretty as a case of butterflies, tiptoed in and peeped across her sister’s shoulder into the mirror. ‘Makes a change to have a footprint on your chest, don’t it darling? That’s original! My, when the word gets round in Leicester Square—’
The wet sponge flew safely over Bella’s head as she ducked, but the rain of articles that followed—nailbrush, soaps, cream-jars, powder-bowl—bounced off a screen behind her and scored several sharp impacts on her arched back.
‘Dollymop!’ screamed Lola. ‘Blundering great jade!’ She had picked up a weighty mother-of-pearl clothes-brush and was about to hurl it after the rest when a cry of ‘Non!’ from the end of the room arrested her. Made heroic by the threat to her property, the tightrope walker’s daughter rushed forward to retrieve her brush, and Bella used the diversion to find cover from the bombardment behind the screen.
‘Now listen to me, Lo,’ she appealed from her temporary refuge. ‘I’m the one with reason to complain, not you. If you was hurt it’s your own fault—’
‘Me own fault!’ shrieked her sister. ‘What do you mean, you stinking haybag? Your swing was all wrong. You went off too bloody soon. Nearly kicked me blinking head off, that’s what you did. I count meself lucky to finish with a bruise like a map of all the Russias across me front. Otherwise I might be dead!’
It was a pity Bella was behind the screen, because she missed the impact of all the Russias bobbing emphatically with the force of Lola’s invective. ‘I went off perfect,’ she insisted. ‘You’d better admit it, Lo—you swung too far. That’s the plain truth, and calling me names can’t change it, you dotty old goose.’
Lola swept the screen aside. ‘Swung too far? When have I ever swung too far? I suppose you didn’t have a nip of something before you went up tonight, did you?’
This was too much for Bella. She straightened from her cowering stance and faced her accuser, bruised and brazen as she was. ‘You know very well I’ve worn the blue ribbon now for seven months, Lo, and I haven’t broken out once! Before you start throwing the blame on others, darling, I suggest you make sure of your own little weakness. By the time you got back to the diggings after walking out with your fancy soldier-boy last night I knew it wasn’t walking you’d been doing. With the life you lead, it’s a wonder you haven’t muffed the act before tonight!’
Lola erupted. ‘You foul-mouthed mot! I shan’t take that from anyone!’
She had grabbed her sister’s hair, forced her against the wall and was poised with her hand on her costume to exact vengeance, when there was a shout from behind.
‘Ladies, ladies, ladies!’ piped Buckmaster. ‘In Heaven’s name desist! You can’t know how the sight of such talent exposed to danger affects me. I have news for you. Look!’
He held out two pieces of rope, each about eighteen inches in length. The sisters were so mystified that they relaxed their holds.
‘What the hell are those?’ demanded Lola.
‘Those, my dear, are the lengths of rope cut from your sister’s trapeze. I found them among the props on the O.P. side of the stage. Someone very neatly shortened the length of your trapeze, Miss Lola. Your accident tonight was planned in cold blood. You are fortunate to be alive.’
A twice-weekly ordeal was taking place in a back room of Paradise Street Police Station, Rotherhithe. Edward Thackeray, as experienced a constable as you would find in M Division, stabbed the blunt end of his pencil distractedly through his beard as he neared the point of decision. Eight fellow-sufferers watched him gather himself. There was a shuffling of large boots and a tensing of bulky shoulders. A clearing of the throat, a forward lean and he rose irrevocably from his chair, the ridiculous desk in front of him nudging forward with a squeak as his knees straightened.
A deep breath. ‘An adjective, sir.’ Spoken with absolute assurance.
The Educational Inspector winced. ‘What did you say?’
‘Adverb. That is to say . . . adverbial pronoun, sir.’
An indrawn hiss from the inspector. ‘Perhaps you should try spelling the word instead.’
Thackeray considered this and decided in the circumstances it was wiser not to make the attempt. He assumed as knowing an expression as he could muster, and smiled.
There was no answering smile. ‘I should have remembered, Constable, of course. It is your practice to avoid spelling any word of more than two syllables. That is why, in the exercise I shall shortly return, you avoided the pitfalls of the word “misdemeanour” and substituted the alternative phrase “minor offence”. An ingenious stratagem, you will concede, gentlemen. The pity is that Constable Thackeray’s spelling is not equal to his ingenuity. His “minor” is a toiler beneath the ground, and “offence” when Thackeray spells it is a wooden enclosure.’ Dramatically, the inspector assumed the pose of a man plagued past endurance, bowing his head and drawing a set of chalky fingers through his hair. Then he rose to face Thackeray, slowly shaking his head. ‘Constable, I have no doubt that in your way you are a most loyal and painstaking member of the Force. If a certificate of efficiency were awarded for qualities such as these, you and I would probably never have crossed paths. Unfortunately, for both of us, the Civil Service Commissioners require evidence of other attainments before they will confer a higher rank upon a constable. That is why, to our mutual discomfort, we have faced each other in this situation twice weekly for four years at various stations throughout the Metropolitan area.’
Thackeray nodded gloomily. He needed no reminding. Twopence a month was compulsorily diverted from his pay into the Educational Inspector’s salary. Twopence a month! A dozen pints of Kop’s ale a year!
‘What depresses me most profoundly,’ continued the inspector, now turning his eyes towards the ceiling, as though making an appeal to a Higher Authority, ‘is that wherever my duties take me—and in four years I have given classes in four widely-separated Divisions—I can be confident that before many weeks have passed I shall walk into a room and find Constable Thackeray sitting at the front desk like a more substantial manifestation of Banquo’s ghost. He haunts me, gentlemen, and his spelling is a continuing torment. He has pursued me from Whitechapel to Islington to Hampstead and now to Rotherhithe.’ He produced a handkerchief and mopped his brow. ‘However, I have never altogether despaired of a man, and I shall endeavour, if Providence allows me the time—’
The knock, entry and salute of the duty constable provided a merciful intervention. ‘Pardon me, sir. An urgent message just come on the despatch cart.’
‘“Came”, Constable.’ The inspector examined the note. ‘Extraordinary. It seems, Constable Thackeray, that someone is asking me to release you from my class. I shall not refuse. Since the finer points of orthography have eluded you for so long, I am sure that they can wait another week. You are required to report to Sergeant Cribb—whoever he may be—at Great Scotland Yard as soon as possible.’
For once in his career Thackeray sincerely blessed Sergeant Cribb.
A cab-drive and thirty minutes later he was seated in an ante-room at Scotland Yard. In the centre was an island of faded carpet with two chairs, a desk, a hat-stand and a wastepaper basket. Around the island, with never a foot on the carpet, intermittently moved a parade of clerks in tall collars, oblivious of the occupants, intent only on passing between two doors on opposite sides of the room. Sergeant Cribb jerked his thumb towards the door behind him.
‘Statistical Branch. All the charge-sheets you’ve ever written have gone through there. Diaries, station calendars, morning reports of crimes. Keeps a small army of pen-pushers out of mischief, so I don’t underrate it. And once in a while they come up with something interesting.’
Thackeray prepared to be interested. Cribb, he knew, demanded complete attention. Foot-shuffling and beard-scratching might do for an Educational Inspector; not for Sergeant Cribb.
‘Spend much of your time at the music halls?’ the sergeant asked unexpectedly. It could have been the beginning of a polite conversation, except that Cribb was rarely polite and no conversationalist.
‘Not usually, Sarge,’ admitted Thackeray. ‘I’m more of a melodrama man myself.’ He added knowledgeably, ‘Irving at the Lyceum or Wilson Barrett at the Princess’s.’
‘Pity. You’ve been inside a music hall, I hope?’
‘Oh indeed, Sarge. I did a duty quite regular when I was in E Division. It’s just that music hall ain’t my—’
‘From now on it will be,’ Cribb told him. ‘Take a look at these.’ He handed a sheaf of papers to the constable and then braced his thighs to rock his chair on its back legs as he waited without much patience for the information to be digested.
‘Reports of accidents,’ Thackeray hazarded, in a few moments. ‘From several different Divisions.’
Scornful silence greeted the observation. He returned to his reading.
Cribb got up to look out of the window at the hansoms drawn up outside the Public Carriage Office in the court below. He was a tall, gaunt man, decisive in his movements and unused to periods of inactivity, but it was vital to his purpose that Thackeray fully examined the reports. He waited like a hooded falcon.
‘I see the point, Sarge!’ Thackeray announced after some minutes.
‘Capital!’ Cribb almost swooped back to the chair. ‘What conclusion d’you draw?’
‘Well, Sarge, if I read any one of these on its own I’d pass it over as pure accident, but six in four weeks is uncommon hard to credit. You can’t really put ’em all down to coincidence.’
Cribb nodded. ‘There may have been more, of course. These have all been reported by sharp-eyed constables on duty. Others may have nodded off at the crucial time, or just not bothered to report what they saw. In one police-district a single incident wouldn’t seem rum at all. Put together here in Statistics Branch they form a pattern, and not a pretty one.’
‘D’you mean one person’s behind all of these, Sarge?’
‘Could be. Could well be. Put ’em in sequence, will you?’
Thackeray arranged the papers chronologically. ‘It seems to have begun on September 15th with the Pinkus sisters on the trapeze at the Middlesex.’
‘Ah. The old Mo.’
‘The Middlesex,’ snapped Cribb. ‘The old Mo. Wake up, man. It’s built on to the Mogul Tavern in Drury Lane.’
Thackerary smiled sheepishly. ‘Yes, I should have known, Sarge. Well that’s where the Pinkus girls complained to Sergeant Woodwright that someone had tampered with their trapeze. It could have had a very ugly consequence, I should think. As it turned out, though, the young ladies was lucky. The sergeant mentions Miss Lola Pinkus showing him a prominent bruise—“somewhat below the left shoulder,” he says, but that seems to be as far as the injuries went.’