Authors: M. J. Trow
‘A word,’ he said.
She slipped into the corridor. ‘Sir?’
‘Your friend,’ Hall murmured.
Hall shifted his feet. ‘Don’t get coy with me, Jacquie. Listen to those bastards in there. Baying for blood and they don’t care whose it is. Maxwell. You’ve talked to him?’
The DCI looked into the steady grey eyes of the DC. He didn’t like his people mixing it with Joe Public. But he knew that they were human too, with families and friends. There were bound to be relationships. But with Maxwell, it was different. The man had a knack of turning up in the middle of somebody else’s pile of shit. And the annoying thing was he always came up smelling of roses. ‘What has he told the press?’
‘Nothing, sir,’ she said. ‘He doesn’t know anything.’
‘Jacquie.’ He closed to her, anxious that the paparazzi should get no wind of this. ‘I don’t know how deep you’re in with Maxwell. I don’t want to know. But when you tell me he doesn’t know anything, every alarm in my body starts to ring. Peter Maxwell always knows something. Usually, it’s where the bodies are buried.’ He turned to go, then turned back. ‘And I don’t necessarily mean that figuratively.’
Then he was gone, into the thick of it, facing the cameras and the music of the media.
‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen …’
Maxwell thought how much smaller Sean Holden looked in the flesh than on the screen. There he was on the local news that night, Meridian’s man at the murder, standing outside 38 Columbine with a microphone in his hand, talking to camera.
‘The body of an unidentified woman was found on this path behind me at midnight last night, as the old year turned.’
‘Very poetic, Count, don’t you think?’ Maxwell stretched his feet in front of the coal-effect fire. The cat continued the habit of a lifetime and didn’t answer. ‘Still, I must put a lick of paint on that doorframe. Nothing like a murder for outlining one’s need for DIY.’
‘Police are regarding the case as one of murder. Detective Chief Inspector Henry Hall said at a press conference earlier this evening that the first task was to discover who the dead woman was.’
The face of a million secrets flashed on to the screen, causing Maxwell to blink for a second.
‘Anyone with any information,’ the reporter went on, should contact Leighford Police Station on 825311 or Crime Stoppers on 0800 555 111.’
‘Why me?’ Maxwell pressed the button on his remote and Sean Holden disappeared into the ether of the airwaves. And he found himself becoming Humphrey Bogart again. ‘Of all the paths on all the estates in all the world, why did you have to be left on mine?’ He caught the flick of Metternich’s tail out of the corner of his eye. ‘Of course, Count, you’re right,’ he said. ‘That is a much more pertinent question, isn’t it? – Who rang the doorbell?’
That was the year that Modular A levels were launched onto an unsuspecting world. Leighford High School had hung nervously back from the pilots at the end of the old century, largely at the behest of the educational dinosaur that was its Head of Sixth Form. The school’s headteacher, James Diamond BSc, MEd, had been all for it, embracing the new examination structure rather as an idiot would embrace a boa constrictor. But Peter Maxwell had whispered the two dread words that were guaranteed to make any head teacher blanch and reconsider – ‘league tables’. James Diamond had held off.
Now, however, there was no choice. The twenty-first century had caught up with Leighford High School and with it, Peter Maxwell. Modular A levels it was. And the first exams were now – January, wet and grey, with the temperature falling and the drizzle driving in from the west over the breeze-block and glass monolith that was Leighford High.
So it was that the laughingly called Spring Term began and a distinctly damp Head of Sixth Form wheeled in from the north-east, the spray flying off the spokes of White Surrey, his famous bike. Not for Surrey the rusty old bikesheds where the more robust kids chained their Meteors and Road Ragers. Peter Maxwell led the old white charger across the quad and hooked it lovingly against the wall of Food Technology.
‘Saddle White Surrey for the field today,’ he parodied Olivier’s Richard III as he hobbled towards the side door. ‘Look that my cycle clips be sound and not too tight. What, is my briefcase easier than it was and all my red pens laid into my desk? Ah, morning, Betty.’ Maxwell was himself again. ‘How are your boilers off for spots?’
‘Doc’ Martin’s name wasn’t really Betty. Neither did Maxwell know any guilty secret the man might have, perhaps in the silk underwear department. It was just that Maxwell called him Betty after the old English saying, itself a distortion of the Catholic prayer – ‘All my eye of a yarn and Betty Martin’. No one else on the staff was old enough to remember it. As for Betty, the school caretaker, he was perfectly used to Maxwell talking to himself and quoting some crap or other. He was Mad Max. It was as simple as that.
‘Fucked up, as usual,’ he told him. ‘Wouldn’t be the start of term without that, would it?’
‘Indeed not, Betty. Oh, Happy New Millennium.’
Mad, Martin mused. Mad as a March fucking hare.
Maxwell was down the corridor past T Eight, up the stairs and through the library, dripping rainwater from his army cape as he went. Miss Ratcliffe the librarian looked aghast. She’d been dreading the start of term as she always did, because the kids contrived to make her life a living Hell. To see the apparition she did however was the last straw.
‘Morning, Matilda,’ Maxwell boomed, sweeping off his saturated tweed cap. ‘You can be sure,’ he stood for a moment to take in the woman’s narrow, sour face, as though she’d just sucked a lemon, ‘that however ghastly we feel, the ducks are loving all this. I’ll be in to talk libraries to you later, fear not. I just love it when you talk Dewey.’
Miss Ratcliffe had long ago stopped fearing anything from Peter Maxwell, least of all whether he might just, one day, get her name right.
He splattered along C corridor, where the neon strip was unaccountably flickering on and off. ‘Thank you, Jason,’ he thundered without turning round. ‘I’m sure that when Mr Boston wants a lighting maestro for his next rattling good dramatic production, you’ll be the first he’ll call on. Until then, leave the bloody switch alone, there’s a good pyromaniac.’ Jason flattened himself against the wall until the wake of the Great Man had passed.
Maxwell crashed into his office and suddenly all eyes were on him. Lon Chaney Jnr stared at the caped crusader from behind his furry makeup as the
; Alan Ladd smouldered at him through the smoke of his
Gun For Hire
; and a very badly drawn Orson Welles scowled at him from the poster of the Scottish Film. The cinema was Maxwell’s second love. The decor of his office screamed Hollywood with just a hint of Ealing and Handmade.
‘Thingee,’ Maxwell had dropped his dripping cape and sprawled on his soft plastic chair, County Hall, teachers for the use of, with one of Mr Bell’s telephonic apparati in his hand, ‘Happy Millennium. When’s the staff meeting?’
Thingee wasn’t Pamela’s real name either, but she did have the sure knowledge that Maxwell knew she was Morning Thingee as opposed to her afternoon oppo who was Thingee Too. And it wasn’t really her place, as part-time receptionist at Leighford High, to know such matters that were printed in the school calendar nearly a year before. But she also knew Mad Max.
‘Two minutes ago, Mr Maxwell,’ she said.
‘Oops,’ the Head of Sixth Form was on his feet. ‘That’s another New Year Resolution gone breasts up. Begging your pardon, of course, Thingee.’
‘Mr Maxwell, I’m glad you rang, really. There’s a policeman to see you.’
‘Is there, now?’ Maxwell sat down again. ‘Tell me, Thingee, is he tallish, sandy hair, wears a three piece suit and rimless glasses? Could pass for our own dear Headmaster in a bad light – which, by the way, is the only way in which you can see our dear Headmaster?’
‘Er … his name is Chief Inspector Hall,’ Thingee answered. Maxwell nodded.
‘Close enough,’ he said. ‘Show him up, would you?’
‘Happy Millennium,’ Peter Maxwell shook the DCI’s hand. ‘Coffee?’
‘No, thanks.’ It had been a while since Henry Hall had stood in the office of the Head of Sixth Form. His youngest, Jeremy, was at Leighford now, in Year Nine, that luckless bunch of no-hopers picked on by all and sundry but mostly by the staff. He’d settled in surprisingly well, but he’d got to that age when he didn’t want people to know his dad was a copper and he’d declined Hall’s offer to drive him in that morning – ‘No, I’ll catch the bus, Dad; it’s okay.’
‘I understand you had something of a shock on New Year’s Eve,’ Hall took the proffered seat, easing the pile of exercise hooks to one side.
‘You might say that,’ Maxwell was brewing coffee on the low table near his desk.
‘We’ve found out who she was.’
‘Really?’ Maxwell sat down opposite his man. He’d crossed Henry Hall before. He was a bland bastard. If he’d been Chinese he’d have been inscrutable, hiding as he did behind the blank lenses of his rimless specs. Men like Peter Maxwell wore their hearts on their sleeves. Men like Henry Hall probably didn’t have a heart at all.
‘Elizabeth Pride. Mean anything to you?’
Maxwell scowled, shaking his head. ‘Not a thing,’ he said. ‘Should it?’
Hall raised his eyebrows. It was the gesture he used in lieu of a smile. ‘I can’t help wondering why anyone would dump a body on your doorstep, Mr Maxwell,’ he said.
Maxwell smiled. ‘The thought had occurred to me, Mr Hall,’ he said. ‘What do you know about this Elizabeth Pride?’
‘I don’t answer questions, Mr Maxwell,’ Hall said. ‘I just ask them.’
It was his best shot at avoiding cliché, but Maxwell wasn’t having any. ‘Humour me,’ he said.
Hall hesitated. This was why he had come. He knew of old that Maxwell had his ways, his means of getting answers when the police could not. Against every rule in the book though it was, Maxwell had his uses. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘the press will have it all by tomorrow anyway, so why not? Elizabeth Pride was seventy-four. She lived alone near the Chanctonbury Ring – Myrtle Cottage.’
‘On the Downs?’
Hall nodded. ‘She was a recluse. Lived with her cats and whatever memories she had. No known next of kin.’
‘A spinster lady?’
‘Widow, apparently. Husband died in the ’seventies. No children.’
‘And nobody missed her, I suppose.’
‘Exactly. She shopped in the local village, but had nothing delivered. Seems she was prone to wandering off from time to time anyway.’
‘Flotsam,’ Maxwell murmured.
‘Flotsam. The floating debris of this great country of ours. Nobody noticed she’d gone. We’re a long way from Jane Marple, Mr Hall.’
‘Local postmistress identified her. Jesus, what’s that?’
Maxwell laughed over the wailing siren. ‘Well, it could be that ex-Comrade Putin has launched his nuclear strike, but I’d be prepared to bet it’s the start of Lesson One. Ten C Eight. Oh, joy. Today, we’re doing joined-up writing. You wouldn’t care to swap jobs, I suppose?’
Hall was on his feet. ‘Oh, no, Mr Maxwell. After all, you do mine anyway, don’t you?’
The look on Maxwell’s face said it all.
It was the moment that teachers the world o’er savour – the magic hour of four of the clock, when the tide of battle in school corridors recedes and the barbarian hordes drift away to lick their wounds and plan tomorrow’s campaign. A few might do some homework.
‘Knock, knock!’ A curly head appeared around Maxwell’s office door.
‘Sylv!’ the Head of Sixth Form was on his feet, and he took his visitor in his arms. Sylvia Matthews was Leighford’s school nurse, the lady without the lamp. Six months ago, a hug and a kiss from Mad Max would have left her with weak knees and an iron lump in her throat caused by that age old medical condition, the rising of her heart. Sylvia Matthews had loved Peter Maxwell for years. She still did. But she wasn’t
love with him any more. She knew how hopeless it all was. And she knew about Jacquie Carpenter. And besides, Guy Morley filled her waking moments now. True, he was only, in Maxwell’s sneering phrase, a supply teacher, but whatever Sylvia Matthews needed, Guy Morley could supply it.
‘How was Christmas?’ Maxwell asked, ushering her to a seat. ‘The Millennium? The First Day?’
‘Ah,’ Sylvia’s smile vanished. ‘Trust you to wipe out a girl’s dreams. I’m never ready for this one, Max, are you?’
‘The psychological wrench of getting back to the Front?’ he asked. ‘No. “I will go back tomorrow, from Imbros over the sea. Stand in the trench, Achilles, flame-capp’d and shout for me.”’
‘Absolutely,’ Sylvia smiled, as usual blissfully unaware of what Maxwell was talking about. ‘Just for the record, Hannah Knightley isn’t pregnant, Greg Smith’s dad is inside again – GBH – and Mary McGee seems to have impetigo. I haven’t seen a case in years. Sent her home.’
‘Gentian violet,’ Maxwell remembered. ‘When I was at school, every other kid had purple splodges all over his face.’
‘Ah, but then, they had red crosses on the doors when you were at school, didn’t they?’
‘Oh, ha,’ he grimaced. ‘Coffee, Sylv?’
‘Scrummy. God – is that the state of your tea towel already? On the First Day?’
‘Don’t come the public healthier than thou, Sylv, please. As my old granddad used to say “You got to eat a peck of dirt”. Mind you, he was dead at thirty-three.’
‘Oh, come on, Max,’ Sylvia suddenly blurted.
‘What?’ he queried in mock ignorance, looking for mugs.
‘I saw the local news last night. I’d know thirty-eight Columbine anywhere. They found a body on your doorstep.’
‘Max!’ She could bellow with the best of them, could Sylvia Matthews – a skill she’d acquired along with BCG testing.
‘Oh, all right. Inspector Hall came a-calling this morning. After-sales care or something. Apparently, they’ve found out who she is. Elizabeth Pride – an old girl who lived up near Chanctonbury Ring.’
‘Do they know who killed her?’
‘Aha,’ Maxwell chuckled. ‘Slowly, slowly catchee monkey, I think is the order of the day.’