Authors: Cynthia Harrod-Eagles
‘Where does he live?’ Norma asked.
‘Bedsitter in Pembridge Road—’
‘As you say. Then when I pushed him a bit, he changed his story and said he stopped for a drink on the way, didn’t speak to anyone in the pub, and
went home alone. How can you verify a negative?’
‘I thought he didn’t shut till eleven o’clock,’ McLaren objected. ‘How could he get to a pub before closing time?’
‘Well spotted. You should be a detective,’ Atherton said admiringly. ‘Version number two of his non-alibi was that it was so quiet he closed up early, about half-past ten—’
‘Which accounts for his having chips left over,’ Norma put in intelligently.
‘—picked up a taxi to Holland Park Station and went to Bent Bill’s.’
‘Oh? Is he that way, then?’ Mackay asked. Bent Bill’s was the aptly-named Crooked Billet, a notoriously homosexual pub in Clarendon Road, Notting Hill.
‘To the trained observer it’s obvious,’ Atherton said modestly. ‘Anyway, I asked him if he had a girlfriend and he said no. Then I asked if he had a boyfriend and he got upset and went bright red. That’s when he changed his story and said he’d gone for a drink. But he still claims he drank all alone, didn’t talk to anyone, went home alone.’
‘Well, I suppose that’s it, then,’ Mackay said. ‘Bent Bill’s is a cruiser’s pub. He must have picked the victim up there, taken him back to the shop for a spot of whoopee, and after that—’
‘He’d had his chips,’ Beevers interrupted eagerly, as though he’d just thought of it.
‘These homosexual murders can be very nasty,’ Norma said, trying to keep up the tone. ‘Look at that Michele Lupo case back in ‘eighty-six.’
‘We had a case once when I was at Kensington—’ McLaren began.
‘Have you run a make on Slaughter?’ Norma asked hastily.
‘Yes, but he’s got no form.’
‘There always has to be a first time,’ she said comfortingly.
‘But he still says he knows nothing about the body, so unless he breaks down and tells all we’ve got a long haul ahead of us. I’m going with the Guv’nor to have a look at his bedsit.’
‘What about Bent Bill’s?* Norma asked.
‘No point in going there until the evening session. It’s a different pub during the day. Anyway, it’s between you and Andy, Alec. I’m booked, and the Guv’nor won’t want to do it himself.’
‘What’s that, homophobia?’ McLaren demanded.
‘No, they only keep Watney’s,’ said Atherton.
The house where Slaughter lived was one of those tall terraced houses so typical of North Kensington, stuccoed and painted dingy cream, with a pillared porch, and steps up to the front door over a half-basement. You could tell the privately-owned houses from those divided into flats or bedsits by the condition of the paintwork and the quality of the curtains at the windows. Dead giveaway for a burglar, Slider thought as they trod up the steps.
Beside the door there was a vertical toast-rack of labelled bell-buttons. Three of the bedsits were apparently occupied by the ubiquitous Mr Friedland. The second bell from the top offered
and Slider pressed it just on the offchance. Nothing happened. Atherton went to press his face to the hammered-glass panel of the door. Slider pressed again, and heard the rattle of a window going up. Stepping back, he saw a pretty, painted face surrounded by fuzzy dun hair hanging out of a second-floor window.
It smiled winningly. ‘Are you looking for Mandy?’
‘Are you Mandy?’
‘That’s right’ She leaned out a little further, and Slider caught a glimpse of a scarlet satin dressing-gown. ‘Are you Bob?’
Atherton was out of sight under the overhang of the porch. Slider flicked him a glance to keep him there.
‘No. Were you expecting him?’
‘I don’t think he’s coming now, he’s ever so late.’ She looked him over with interest and approval. ‘D’you want to come up?’
‘Yes please,’ Slider said eagerly.
‘Second floor, door on the right’
The head was withdrawn; the buzzer sounded, and Slider pushed his way in to a narrow hall with very shiny, very old lino, smelling strongly of furniture polish, stretching straight ahead up the stairs. On the second floor Mandy was waiting at the door, her dressing-gown invitingly parted at the neck, one bare knee poking through the folds and a feather-trimmed slipper appearing at the hem. How reassuringly traditional, Slider thought. Under the make-up she looked about nineteen, going on thirty-five.
‘That lino’s a bit slippery,’ he commented.
‘Oh I know, it’s lethal. It’s Kathleen – the housekeeper –she will polish it. I don’t know how many times a week people go arse over tit down the stairs, excuse my French. What’s your name, love?’
Slider pulled out his warrant card. ‘Detective Inspector Slider.’ Her face sagged with dismay at the sight of it, and of Atherton coming up the stairs behind him. ‘This is Detective Sergeant Atherton. Don’t worry, it’s not trouble for you,’ he said quickly. ‘We just want to ask you some questions about someone who lives here.’
‘I haven’t done nothing,’ she wailed, pulling her dressing-gown tight at the neck with belated modesty.
‘I know you haven’t,’ he said soothingly. ‘It’s all right. We just want to talk to you about Mr Slaughter who lives upstairs. I promise you you’re not going to get into trouble. Can we come in?’
Inside, her single room was mostly taken up with a double bed covered by a quilted satin counterpane and crowded with dolls and frilly cushions. It left little room for a
wardrobe, an armchair, and tiny table by the window covered in a lace cloth and bearing a vase containing a bunch of plastic violets. There was an old-fashioned gas fire with a mantelpiece crowded with ornaments, cards, letters and photographs, and on the wall above it a mirror in a frame encrusted with sea-shells. In the far corner was a sink with a geyser, and a marble-topped side-table bearing a single gas-ring and a collection of mugs, spoons and coffee-jars.
Slider felt a pang of nostalgia. Barring the personal clutter, it was exactly like the room he and Irene had first lived in when they got married. It even smelled the same, of carpet-dust mingled with the faint but penetrating aroma of tomato soup. And on just such a gas-ring he had cooked exotic one-pot meals for his bride, and they had sat on the bed together and eaten with spoons straight from the saucepan.
Back in prehistory. He shook the thoughts away, and concentrated on reassuring Mandy, who was passing from fear to indignation as she looked from Slider to Atherton and told herself how she’d been tricked. When his fatherliness and Atherton’s obvious harmlessness – an effect at which he had worked hard over the years – had won her confidence, she proved both garrulous and inquisitive, and perched on the bed with one leg tucked under her, plainly glad of the company and spoiling for a chat.
‘Well, he’s gay, of course. I didn’t need to be told that, although Maureen next door tried to get friendly with him when she first came. She thought he might bring us home stuff, you know, fish and chips and that, but I said to her what’d be the use of that? They’d be cold by the time he got here, though she’s got a little cooker with an oven in her room so we could warm them up. But I don’t like warmed-up fish and chips, and anyway, the time he gets home we’re always working, and the smell does hang about. It’d put you right off, wouldn’t it?’
She paused, seeming to expect an answer. Atherton, unfairly, looked at Slider for it, so he agreed.
Mandy nodded confidently. ‘I mean you can smell Ronnie a mile away when he comes home with all that frying smell on his clothes. Not that he doesn’t seem a very nice bloke, as
they go, and I’m not prejudiced, but I wouldn’t like a job like that. I like things nice.’ She looked round complacently at her room.
‘You’ve certainly made it very comfortable,’ Slider said politely.
The compliment seemed to please her. ‘It’s not bad here. I’ve been in lots of other places before that weren’t near as nice as this. Kathleen, the housekeeper, she comes in every day and cleans, and I must say she keeps it all, you know, very nice.’
‘She doesn’t mind about your – er – visitors?’ Atherton asked.
‘Why should she? She doesn’t own the house. It belongs to a man, ever so rich he is, lives in a big house in Chorleywood, so I suppose he doesn’t need the money, that’s why the rent’s so reasonable. He just wants enough to cover the running expenses, so Kathleen told me. She said he bought it for a capital investment, whatever that might be when it’s at home. She said to me when I first took the room that it was a quiet house and as long as there was no trouble the owner didn’t mind what we did. And there isn’t,’ she said emphatically, ‘because believe you me the last thing
want is trouble.’
‘Of course not,’ Slider concurred. ‘And what about Mr Slaughter? How long has he been here?’
‘Oh, for ever! Well, I’ve been here three years, and he was here before me. I’ve been here the longest now, apart from him. There’s a lot of coming and going. Some people only stay a few weeks, and you never see them when they’re here. But Maureen and me, and Kim downstairs, we’ve all been here a while now.’
‘Do you see much of Mr Slaughter?’
‘Well, he’s out at work all day and that, but we say hello if we pass on the stairs or anything, and I’ve been up to his room a few times for a cup of tea and a chat.’ Slider could imagine who did most of the chatting. ‘I mean, he’s not very exciting, if you know what I mean, but he’s a nice enough bloke.’
‘Does he have any other friends?’ Atherton asked. ‘Does anyone visit him?’
‘Not really, not regular.’ She looked at him confidentially.
‘Well, there’s pick-ups, but you wouldn’t call them friends would you?’
‘Does he often have pick-ups?’
‘Not often. Well, he isn’t Mr Universe, is he? Just sometimes he’ll take someone up there. Never the same one twice, though. Well, that’s how it goes, isn’t it?’
‘He had someone up there last night, didn’t he?’ Slider put the question as casually as possible, but still she experienced a belated surge of caution.
‘I don’t know if I ought to be talking about him behind his back. What’s he done, anyway?’
‘I don’t know that he’s done anything. I can’t go into what it’s about, but I can tell you that I’m trying to establish an alibi for him, so if there was someone with him who could vouch for him—’
‘Oh well, that’s all right then,’ she said, instantly satisfied. ‘I wouldn’t want to get him into trouble, that’s all. But he did have someone, in. They were coming up the stairs just when I was coming back from the bathroom – that’s down one flight on the half-landing. I said hullo to Ron and he said hullo and they sort of come up the stairs behind me. And I came in here and they went on upstairs to his room.’
‘What time would that be?’
‘Ooh, I dunno, about half-eleven, quarter to twelve. I couldn’t swear to the minute.’
‘What did he look like, the other man?’
‘I didn’t really get a good look at him, only that he was youngish, and slim. Well, Ron’s a bit – you know—’ she shrugged, ‘and I thought to myself he was doing well for himself, picking up a nice-looking lad like that.’
‘How was he dressed?’
‘What, the other man? He had a leather jacket on, with a sort of white collar. And jeans, I think. I didn’t really see his face or anything,’ she anticipated. ‘He was sort of in the shadow coming up the stairs, and I only got a glimpse of him behind Ronnie. Not to know him again.’
‘Where would Ronnie have picked him up?’ Atherton asked.
She shrugged. ‘One of those gay pubs I suppose. Naturally I didn’t ask. He goes up the Coleherne sometimes, in Earl’s
Court. And the Billet in Holland Park – that’s near here. I expect it was one of those, I couldn’t say really.’
‘Does he go out often?’
‘Not really. Well, he doesn’t normally shut the shop until eleven, and he only gets Sunday and Monday nights off. He doesn’t usually go out a Sunday night.’
‘What does he do for pleasure then?’
‘I don’t think he does anything. He just stays in his room and watches telly and plays music’ She made a face. ‘Jim Reeves. I can hear it sometimes when it’s quiet down here. His room’s just above mine. And that Dolly Parton. I can’t stand country an’ western. Drives me barmy – twang twang twang!’
‘Did he play music last night?’ Slider asked.
‘Yeah. He had it turned up really loud at one point. I think he must have been dancing with his mate, because they were thumping on the floorboards. And then—’ She stopped herself and looked at Slider nervously.
‘And then? Go on, you’d better tell me. It might be important.’
‘Well, at one time they were having a bit of a barney, shouting and that. The music stopped and I could hear them at it. Then he put another tape on, and I didn’t hear any more.’
‘Did you catch what they were arguing about?’ She shook her head. ‘Did you hear the other man leave?’
‘Yeah, it was about one o’clock, give or take. I was busy,’ she said delicately, ‘but I heard them go down the stairs talking.’
‘How do you know it was them?’
‘Well it had to be. The other room upstairs is empty. There was one of those Chinese men staying there, but he’s left now.’
She shrugged again. ‘We seem to get a lot of Chinese here. I don’t know why. I don’t mind – they’re never any trouble. Quiet. You hardly know they’re there.’
‘So Ronnie and his friend went out together?’ Atherton said.
‘Yeah. So they must have made it up,’ she added hopefully.
‘And did you hear Ronnie come back in again later?’ Slider asked.
‘Well, it wasn’t before four o’clock, because I’d have heard him. After that, I dunno – I was asleep. But I heard him in the bathroom this morning about seven o’clock, so he must have come back, mustn’t he?’
Ron Slaughter’s bedsit was smaller than Mandy’s, but seemed larger because it had only a single bed. It was furnished with much the same equipment, but it was painfully, monastically neat. The bed was tightly made with a white candlewick bedspread folded down and tucked under the turn of the sheet and the pillow severely smoothed. Nothing had been left lying about. A mug, plate and knife and fork which had been washed up and left to dry beside the gas-ring were the sole signs of riot. The sink itself was sparkling clean, and there was a room-freshener on the windowsill making the room smell faintly of synthetic peaches.