Authors: Gwendoline Butler
77â85 Fulham Palace Road,
Hammersmith, London W6 8JB
First published in Great Britain by Collins Crime in 2000
Copyright Â© Gwendoline Butler 2000
Gwendoline Butler asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
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This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library.
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Source ISBN: 9780007106448
Ebook Edition Â© JULY 2014 ISBN: 9780007553907
A brief Calendar of the life and career of John Coffin,
Chief Commander of the Second City of London Police
John Coffin is a Londoner by birth, his father is unknown and his mother was a difficult lady of many careers and different lives who abandoned him in infancy to be looked after by a woman who may have been a relative of his father and who seems to have acted as his mother's dresser when she was on the stage. He kept in touch with this lady, whom he called Mother, lodged with her in his early career and looked after her until she died.
After serving briefly in the army, he joined the Metropolitan Police, soon transferring to the plain-clothes branch as a detective.
He became a sergeant and was very quickly promoted to inspector a year later. Ten years later, he was a superintendent and then chief superintendent.
There was a bad patch in his career about which he is reluctant to talk. His difficult family background has complicated his life and possibly accounts for an unhappy period when, as he admits, his career went down a black hole. His first marriage split apart at this time and his only child died.
From this dark period he was resurrected by a spell in a secret, dangerous undercover operation about which even now not much is known. But the esteem he won then was recognized when the Second City of London was being formed and he became Chief Commander of its Police Force. He has married again, an old love, Stella Pinero, who is herself a very successful actress. He has also discovered two siblings, a much younger sister and brother.
Tuesday. One day it will be Christmas, but not for many of those living now
CI Phoebe Astley spoke in a sober voice to the Chief Commander. âI hate a headless baby,' she said. âTerrible thought.'
Because the Chief Commander was an old friend, she felt free to drop in on Coffin with anything that worried her. So much so that Coffin had told his wife that his heart sank when Phoebe appeared in his room.
âI hate a headless anyone,' said Coffin gloomily. Not so long ago an ill-wisher had left the head of a cat on the staircase in his home in St Luke's Tower. Not something you forgot.
He looked round his office without pleasure. Stella, his wife, had told him that his chosen decorative style was ugly and he had replied that it was workmanlike, but observing it now he could see what she meant. Everything that could be dark brown was dark brown, and the rest was cream. Or, in the case of the curtains, dark blue.
âBile,' he murmured to himself. âThat's what this room is like. I must have been bilious when I chose the colours .Â .Â . I'd probably had a row with Stella.' They used to quarrel a lot in those days, and they didn't seem to now. Was this a good sign, as he hoped? Or a bad one?
He loved her, though, he knew that, and he knew now that she loved him too. Once he had doubted, but no longer.
Phoebe went to look out the window. It was still raining, as it had been for days. The rain, washing away the light top surface of soil of a recent excavation, had played its part in uncovering the head. Heads rather.
Phoebe was a tall, elegantly built woman, with a taste for dark trousers and bright sweaters. Today she was in red and black. âThere is this pit, about ten infants' skulls.' She shook her head. âMore maybe.'
âA small population. Probably not more than five breeding pairs in the group.' This was the way students of primitive man talked about populations they were investigating. She had picked this up from one of the archaeologists working on the site. âThey couldn't feed too many children.'
âMakes me feel like King Herod.'
âNo need to take it personally,' said Phoebe briskly, turning away from the window. âDr Murray .Â .Â . she's the archaeologist, said they are Neanderthal .Â .Â . been there for many thousands of years.'
âSome sort of a cult?' enquired Coffin.
âMore like a culling .Â .Â . Dr Murray said the Neanderthals, to which, from the skulls, these children may have belonged, practised infanticide to keep the population down.' Dr Murray had not yet passed on her belief that one, and only one, of the skulls was not so old, modern-day in fact, and might have been deposited there by someone who had discovered the heads and thought this was a good place to hide another one. She always thought in terms of crimes. She would be telling John Coffin her suspicions, which might mean something or nothing; it was going to be hard to date this later skull.
The big teaching hospital that was attached to Second City University had a collection of skulls in a medical museum that was now hardly used. It was a macabre, dead place these days, but it had its uses.
âI'm hating this more and more .Â .Â . to think I've been sitting on top of them all these years.' Coffin was gloomy.
âNot exactly sitting, sir.'
He went to the window to join her. âWell, walking, walking towards my car.'
The whole area to the north of his window, once bare, unpaved ground where a few bushes struggled for life, was being cleared. Headquarters of the Second City Police was being expanded: they had outgrown their accommodation and another new block was being put up.
Or would be put up once the ground was cleared. At the moment it was a hole. And one full of water since it was raining hard. This water-logged hole was now roped off and marked with signs saying that Entry was Forbidden.
The archaeologists had taken over, but even they had not been able to work for some days.
âDr Murray is very excited about it. No one knew there was a concentration of Neanderthals here.'
âStill got some,' said Coffin sourly. He had come from a short working trip up north to find he had yet another problem. Neanderthals! Sometimes he felt he worked with a bunch of them. âThere's Nean Street just round the corner. Probably built on a settlement of them.' And it was true that the local kids called some of the families there â short, stocky but powerful, men and women both â Neanderthals.
âOh no,' said Phoebe seriously. âThey died out millennia ago.'
âThink so?' said the sceptic.
He felt that he could hear the millennia marching with heavy feet, but not taking all the Neanderthals with them.
Phoebe ignored her boss's mood, partly because she always did and partly because she knew the reason for it. There was a possible murder case in the Second City that was troubling him. Troubling a lot of them, since it involved a police officer, a detective in Spinnergate. It was just possible that Arthur Lumsden had murdered his wife.
That was, if she was dead. At the moment she was just âmissing'.
He had not reported her missing, even after seven days of absence and silence. Her mother had telephoned his sergeant in the Amen Street Divisional Office.
But there was blood of her type in the family car, and talk of a quarrel. The family dog, a small terrier, was missing too. There was a strong feeling that Lumsden might have killed his wife .Â .Â . husbands could do anything, but he would never have killed his dog.
DC Lumsden was on leave. He had given a statement, denying a quarrel but admitting they had been having a âdifficult time'. They had breakfasted together, and he had then gone on duty. When he came home there was no wife and no dog. He didn't know anything about the blood in the car. And yes, he had had a rest period of two hours in the middle of the day. No, he had not gone home, just gone for a walk.
As a statement, there were holes in it.
And there the matter rested for the time being. One of the Spinnergate CID team was looking into Mrs Lumsden's disappearance as quietly as possible. Coffin looked at the file: Sergeant Drury was the man.
Coffin knew Lumsden slightly and was now repressing the feeling that he hadn't liked the man. âNot a joke in him.'
And then there were the murders in Minden Street. Gunshot wounds to the head. Nasty. Yes, Coffin had plenty to worry about. Phoebe was worried about them herself.
Coffin looked thinner, a trifle haggard, which she admitted to finding attractive. She always had found him attractive, but now working with him made this forbidden territory. Anyway, he had a very lovely wife, Stella Pinero, a powerful lady in her own right.
âThe Neanderthal population was probably small, she says, and co-existed with modern man.'
I just said so.'
Phoebe ignored this. She sipped the coffee that Coffin had politely offered her. He was good in that kind of way.
âAre they still underneath all that water?'
âYes, but they are due to be carefully removed tomorrow morning, and taken off to be examined in a lab somewhere.'
Coffin felt better. âRight, well, let's get back to what we were discussing.' He knew what it was. Phoebe had come in several times already to talk about the same issue. âThe murders in Minden Street .Â .Â . you believe you know the murderer, but the lawyers won't let you charge him.' Interesting case, he mused. Someone ought to write it up one day, perhaps I'll do it myself.
âI thought you liked him yourself,' said Coffin cautiously. He had heard rumours.
âWe knew each other for a bit. It was when I first came to the Second City and was finding my feet, thought he might make a good contact,' said Phoebe defensively. âI hadn't got him sussed out.' She shrugged. âSo I made a mistake.'
âSo what can I do?'
âHe's dangerous,' went on Phoebe, as if she wasn't listening. âHe'll do it again. Bound to.'
Better wait till he âdoes it again' before I embark on the book, thought Coffin.