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Authors: Peter Dickinson

King and Joker (19 page)

BOOK: King and Joker
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“OK, Lulu,” said Albert, still in the same controlled voice. “I'll take over. The next tank's supposed to have three green whip-snakes and a terrapin in it. The snakes aren't poisonous. If you find anything else nasty, leave it for me. Hello! He's alive! The bastard! Look—no, don't look, but he's just taken one of my scalpels—that must be it on the floor—and slashed two cuts on its back. Christ! D'you know what? He's made a red cross. He's mad. I wonder whether that'll mend, in spite of everything. What's up, Lulu?”

“There's a couple of animals in this tank with the snakes. I think they're kangaroo rats.”

“That's right. They'll be OK. They live in that third cage. You don't have to grab them. Put a bit of corn' on your palm, let 'em see it, then hold your hand flat above their heads and they'll jump up to eat it. See how you get on—I'm going to do what I can for Fatty. Stupid idiot if he thought the whip-snakes would go anywhere near kangaroo-rats. Now, Fatty, how'm I going to get you on to my bench without you falling apart?”

The kangaroo rats did their trick as if they were practising for a circus. Louise stroked them as she carried them to their cage, more to calm her own horrors than theirs. On her way back to the tanks her eye was caught by a brown blob crouched in a corner where a row of the old King's parallel bars still ran up the wall. It looked like a bit of wrong-coloured fluff until a black eye blinked at her. She took a tumbler and a filing-card from the bench and moved carefully towards it.

“Lulu …”

“Shh.”

The animal crouched till she was almost on it, and then didn't bolt fast enough. She trapped it under the tumbler, slid the card beneath it and carried her catch to Albert.


Mus musculus
, he said. “The common house mouse.”

“Common palace mouse, really.”

“Not one of mine. Wait a sec—I haven't had mice in here before. It might be evidence. I wish to God Father had persuaded d'Arcy to take the joker more seriously. We ought to have the police in here before I muck around much more—on the other hand I daren't wait for them in case there's more like Fatty, or ones the cats half got.”

“How is Fatty?”

“I don't know. I've given him an anaesthetic—killed him very likely. But if he comes through that and the wound doesn't get infected I think he might do. Hell, I'll try d'Arcy.”

He picked up the telephone and dialled a house number. Louise heard the whine of the engaged tone. After three tries Albert put the handset down with a snap.

“He's keeping all lines permanently open to Caracas, I bet,” he said.

“Father said he was going to ask Mr Theale to see what he could find out about the joker.”

“Damned Saturday,” said Albert. “There won't be anybody about I can ask to go and find Theale. I daren't leave Fatty.”

“I'll go. I suppose I'd better ring up Aunt Tim and tell her we're not coming.”

“D'you mind? Sorry, Lulu … Fatty's going to have the hell of a scar if he does heal. He'll look like a mobile hot cross bun.”

Aunt Tim was a marvellous old dear. She was clearly glad not to have to cope with runaway princesses on top of three hundred bee-keepers, but managed to sound disappointed. Sergeant Theale was working with three other policemen in the outer office of the suite which had been assigned to the police. Louise explained what had happened in the zoo. He shook his head.

“I'd like to come, Ma'am,” he said. “I think it could be important. But I don't know as I could persuade Superintendent d'Arcy. He's run out of leads, you see, and now we're cross-checking all the guests at the reception, to see that none of them was an impostor.

“Bloody waste of time is you ask me,” said one of the other policemen. “Inside job if ever I bloody saw one.”

“Do you think the Superintendent could see me for a few minutes?” asked Louise, smiling at him, public face (for reassuring subjects who have committed gaffes).

“He's pretty busy, Ma'am. I'll ask.”

In the inner office Louise sensed a different sort of frustration. It took the story princess, distressed and serious but quite coherent, to persuade Mr d'Arcy even to listen.

“What d'you think, Jack?” he said to the officer at the other desk.

“Better have it checked out, sir. Two things: it sounds a bit violent, which the other jokes His Majesty told us about didn't; I'm not saying that means it's got anything to do with the murder, but it does make more of a pattern. Chappie plays a series of practical jokes—he's a bit unbalanced anyway—does his nut—kills McGivan, then this. And I suppose you've got to reckon on what His Majesty might say to you if he was here.”

He might have been more tactful, but it did the trick. For an instant Mr d'Arcy looked furious, then he nodded and smiled bleakly at Louise. The other officer fetched Theale, who stood to attention in front of Mr d'Arcy's desk.

“Her Royal Highness has told me about the incident in the zoo, sir,” he said.

“Well, nip along there and check it out. How are you going to tackle it?”

“I'll do a thorough search of the zoo, sir, though if it's the same chappie as before he'll have worn gloves and left no traces, except what he meant to leave. But it being Saturday makes a difference, sir. A lot of the Palace staff goes off, Friday night; we have a different staff weekends. I've made a chart of the other incidents, sir, but because they all occurred weekdays there was a lot of staff I couldn't eliminate. With a bit of luck this incident should bring it down to not more than half a dozen, and I can concentrate on them.”

“All right,” said Mr d'Arcy. “Only don't take longer about it than you have to.”

“I think you're making a mistake, sir,” said the other officer. “OK, suppose these jokes are a red herring, they've still got to be cleared up or they'll go on messing around with our main investigation. In fact it sounds to me as though this chappie was sufficiently unbalanced to start deliberately trying to muck around with us.”

“All right, all right!” said Mr d'Arcy. “You look into it, Theale. See what you come up with. Report back to me if you need help. Don't waste time, but do a thorough job.”

“Very good, sir.”

Albert was at his work-bench, very carefully weaving of strips of tape across the wounds on Fatty's back. The Toad looked like one of those parcels which often arrived at the Palace—a loyal gift of a Lancashire black pudding, say, wrapped with more fervour than skill, delayed in the post and now bulging or oozing from a dozen seams.

“Won't be a sec,” he said.

“Go get 'em, you two,” said the mynah, swirling overhead.

Louise had never seen a man as startled as Sergeant Theale. For a moment he had the look of someone shot in the back in a Mafia film.

“It's all right,” she said. “It's only the mynah.”

“I wish to God he was better at voices,” said Albert. “My guess he's picked that up from whoever put the cats in here. Good of you to come, Sergeant. I gather you couldn't interest the Superintendent.”

“He's a bit tied up at the moment, Sir.”

Louise saw Albert suppress a little flare of temper with just the same quick smile that Father would have used.

“Fine,” he said. “The point is that I don't want to touch anything till you've seen it and I don't want to hang around doing nothing while my animals die. That's the scalpel he used to slash the toad with, I think. I haven't touched it.”

“Right, Sir, I'll get on to that at once. I suppose there's no question of the cats having got in by mistake.”

“Just possible. But I don't see them bringing a mouse with them, slashing poor Fatty, opening cages and teaching the mynah a new sentence.”

The mynah, delighted by the stir it felt it was causing, chuckled to itself as it tried to perch on the central light.

“George the Third ought never to have occurred,” it said. “One can only wonder at so grotesque a blunder.”

“You see,” said Albert. “That's supposed to be my voice. Not very close, I hope.”

“Pity, Sir. That would have been really useful. Now, can you give me any sort of estimate of when the incident might have occurred?”

“Early this morning, I think. It was all OK when I locked up at ten last night …”

“The zoo's kept locked, Sir?”

“Of course.”

“Who has access to keys?”

“I keep one on my ring. There's a spare for the family to use if they want to come down—hangs on the key-board in the lobby outside the breakfast-room. Jack Jakowski looks after the animals when I'm not here so he has one. I'm pretty certain he keeps it on his key-ring.”

“I'll look into that, Sir. The one in the private apartments sounds the most accessible. Now, about the time …”

“Well, it wouldn't have been safe to try anything in the dark because the animals would have been bound to kick up a racket. But they always shout a bit around dawn—I daresay you've heard 'em—so that'd have been a possible time. Much after that and there'd have been people about. I don't know how fast Blomberg toads bleed, but at a guess I'd say Fatty was knifed not less than four or more than eight hours ago.”

“Then that ties in,” said Theale.

(Dawn, thought Louise. The parents left at seven thirty. Father. Could he be mad? Were they wrong about McGivan being the joker? Could McGivan have told somebody else what he'd found out? Or if McGivan knew nothing, Father could still have thought …) That feeling, like cold slime, was beginning to stir again when a yellow creature skipped chattering across the floor and hid under the work-bench.

“See if you can catch him, Lulu,” said Albert. “He bites, but he's tough as old boots, so you can be rough with him if you have to.”

Louise spent the morning on hands and knees because in the course of capturing the yellow biter—it turned out to be a squirrel from Java, and to have neither fear nor manners—she unearthed a hysterical family of long-eared jerboas which scuttled and gibbered and cowered in impossible corners. There were several more bodies, some half-eaten, including the remains of another house mouse. The cats appeared to have gone berserk, like a fox in a hen-run, striking out at anything that moved in a frenzy of blood-lust. Albert worked steadily and dispassionately, examining the maimed animals as they came to light and usually putting them to sleep without even a sigh. Sometimes he was able to patch a wound or set a limb.

Sergeant Theale too worked methodically, powdering for finger-prints and taking photographs of the results. He seemed excited by a thread of black cotton caught on a splinter by one of the latches.

“Bloke wore gloves,” he said. “Not rubber but cloth—I've got a place where you can see the weave. Now, if this comes off one of them gloves …”

“Perhaps he nicked a pair of Pilfer's,” said Albert. “He's got drawersful.”

“That's one possibility, Sir,” said Theale, in the tone of somebody who is thinking things out as he speaks. “There's something else ties in, from what His Majesty told me, and there's points here which support it, like knowing where you kept the spare key. Whoever's been playing these tricks is pretty intimate with things in the Private Apartments.”

“I'd begun to think it was McGivan,” said Albert. “But he couldn't have done this, could he?”

“No, Sir.”

Just before lunch Mr d'Arcy and one of the sergeants from his outer office turned up.

“Found anything, Theale?” he said.

“Yes, sir. We've made a bit of progress and come to certain conclusions. With your permission I'd like to spend the afternoon interviewing staff.”

“Show me.”

Sergeant Theale took him on a conducted tour. He stared at the toad parcel, and then at the dead tamarin lying farther along the bench.

“Jesus Christ!” he whispered. “Jesus Ho—”

He must have seen much more horrible things in his life, but the extraordinary appeal of the tamarin, even in death, cracked the smooth shell of Palace officialdom he'd been growing. Then he pulled himself up and spoke in a different voice.

“You've got a nut case here, Theale,” he said authoritatively, just as though nobody had thought of the idea before.

“Yes, sir.”

“I think we're going to have to take this seriously, whether it's got anything to do with McGivan's death or not.”

“I think it has, sir. I think it's part of the series.”

d'Arcy's reply was cut short by a cry from the other sergeant. Louise had just managed to dislodge a bright blue lizard from under a radiator, and as it flashed across the floor the sergeant thoughtlessly brought his foot down like a man trying to stop a rolling coin. The lizard gave a wrench and darted on, leaving three inches of tail twitching violently beneath the leather sole. The sergeant—a young man in a flash blue suit, very well endowed with teeth—started to grin with embarrassment, but at the same time his face turned to a whitish green, and Louise thought he was going to faint like Pilfer.

“That wasn't very clever,” said Albert in a restrained voice. “Never mind—you haven't done much harm. It's an escape mechanism. They do it quite often, and a new tail grows.”

He picked the jerking tail up and tossed it into a waste paper basket, where it continued to thresh against the metal side.

“All right,” said Mr d'Arcy. “We'll put a forensic team in here this afternoon. You've done well, Theale. I'll second a couple of officers to you for the afternoon and you can see how you get on with eliminating members of the staff.”

“Very good, sir.”

“Excuse me, Superintendent,” said Albert. “I'm sure my father would insist on the Family being included in the elimination process. It really wouldn't look good to leave us out.”

BOOK: King and Joker
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