Authors: Peter Robinson
‘Mrs Peplow,’ Quilley interrupted, ‘this is all very well, but I don’t see what it has to do with me. You come in here and pollute my home with smoke, then you start
telling me some fairy tale about your husband, a man I met casually once or twice. I’m busy, Mrs Peplow, and quite frankly I’d rather you left and let me get back to work.’
‘I’m sure you would.’ She flicked a column of ash into the Wedgwood bowl. ‘As I was saying, I knew he was up to something, so I started following him. I thought he might
have another woman, unlikely as it seemed, so I took my camera along. I wasn’t really surprised when he headed for the Park Plaza instead of going back to the office after lunch one day. I
watched the elevator go up to the nineteenth floor, the bar, so I waited across the street in the crowd for him to come out again. As you know, I didn’t have to wait very long. He came out
with you. And it was just as easy the next time.’
‘I’ve already told you, Mrs Peplow, he was a mystery buff, a fellow collector, that’s all—’
‘Yes, yes, I know he was. Him and his stupid catalogues and collection. Still,’ she mused, ‘it had its uses. That’s how I found out who you were. I’d seen your
picture on the book covers, of course. If I may say so, it does you more than justice.’ She looked him up and down as if he were a side of beef hanging in a butcher’s window. He
cringed. ‘As I was saying, my husband was obvious. I knew he must be chasing you for advice. He spends so much time escaping to his garden or his little world of books that it was perfectly
natural he would go to a mystery novelist for advice rather than to a real criminal. I imagine you were a bit more accessible, too. A little flattery and you were hooked. Just another puzzle for
you to work on.’
‘Look, Mrs Peplow—’
‘Let me finish.’ She ground out her cigarette butt in the bowl. ‘Foxgloves, indeed! Do you think he could manage to brew up a dose of digitalis without leaving traces all over
the place? Do you know what he did the first time? He put just enough in my Big Mac to make me a bit nauseous and make my pulse race, but he left the leaves and stems in the garbage! Can you
believe that? Oh, I became very careful in my eating habits after that, Mr Quilley. Anyway, your little plan didn’t work. I’m here and he’s dead.’
Quilley paled. ‘My God, you killed him, didn’t you?’
‘He was the one with the bad heart, not me.’ She lit another cigarette.
‘You can hardly blackmail me for plotting with your husband to kill you when
the one who’s dead,’ said Quilley. ‘And as for evidence, there’s
nothing. No, Mrs Peplow, I think you’d better go, and think yourself lucky I don’t call the police.’
Mrs Peplow looked surprised. ‘What are you talking about? I have no intention of blackmailing you for plotting to kill me.’
‘Then what . . . ?’
‘Mr Quilley, my husband was blackmailing you. That’s why
Quilley slumped back in his chair. ‘I what?’
She took a sheet of paper from her purse and passed it over to him. On it were just two words: ‘Trotton – Quilley.’ He recognized the neat handwriting. ‘That’s a
photocopy,’ Mrs Peplow went on. ‘The original’s where I found it, slipped between the pages of a book called
Signed in Blood
by X. J. Trotton. Do you know that book, Mr
‘Vaguely. I’ve heard of it.’
‘Oh, have you? It might also interest you to know that along with that book and the slip of paper, locked away in my husband’s files, is a copy of your own first novel. I put it
Quilley felt the room spinning around him. ‘I . . . I . . .’ Peplow had given him the impression that Gloria was stupid, but that was turning out to be far from the truth.
‘My husband’s only been dead for two days. If the doctors look, they’ll
that he’s been poisoned. For a start, they’ll find high levels of potassium and
then they’ll discover
. Do you know what they are, Mr Quilley? I looked them up. They’re a kind of white blood cell, and you find lots of them around if there’s
been any allergic reaction or inflammation. If I was to go to the police and say I’d been suspicious about my husband’s behaviour over the past few weeks, that I had followed him and
photographed him with you, and if they were to find the two books and the slip of paper in his files . . . Well, I think you know what they’d make of it, don’t you? Especially if I told
them he came home feeling ill after a lunch with you.’
‘It’s not fair,’ Quilley said, banging his fist on the chair arm. ‘It’s just not bloody fair.’
‘Life rarely is. But the police aren’t to know how stupid and unimaginative my husband was. They’ll just look at the note, read the books, and assume he was blackmailing
you.’ She laughed. ‘Even if Frank had read the Trotton book, I’m sure he’d have only noticed an “influence”, at the most. But you and I know what really went on,
don’t we? It happens more often than people think. A few years ago I read in the newspaper about similarities between a book by Colleen McCullough and
The Blue Castle
by Lucy Maud
Montgomery. I’d say that was a bit obvious, wouldn’t you? It was much easier in your case, much less dangerous. You were very clever, Mr Quilley. You found an obscure novel and you
didn’t only adapt the plot for your own first book, you even stole the character of your series detective. There was some risk involved, certainly, but not much. Your book is better, without
a doubt. You have some writing talent, which X. J. Trotton completely lacked. But he did have the germ of an original idea, and it wasn’t lost on you, was it?’
Quilley groaned. Thirteen solid police procedurals, twelve of them all his own work, but the first, yes, a deliberate adaptation of a piece of ephemeral trash. He had seen what Trotton could
have done and had done it himself. Serendipity, or so it had seemed when he found the dusty volume in a second-hand bookshop in Victoria years ago. All he had had to do was change the setting from
London to Toronto, alter the names and set about improving upon the original. And now . . . ? The hell of it was that he would have been perfectly safe without the damn book. He had simply given in
to the urge to get his hands on Peplow’s copy and destroy it. It wouldn’t have mattered, really.
Signed in Blood
would have remained unread on Peplow’s shelf. If only the
bloody fool hadn’t written that note . . .
‘Even if the police can’t make a murder charge stick,’ Mrs Peplow went on, ‘I think your reputation would suffer if this got out. Oh, the great reading public might not
care. Perhaps a trial would even increase your sales – you know how ghoulish people are – but the plagiarism would at the very least lose you the respect of your peers. I don’t
think your agent and publisher would be very happy either. Am I making myself clear?’
Pale and sweating, Quilley nodded. ‘How much?’ he whispered.
‘I said how much. How much do you want to keep quiet?’
‘Oh, it’s not your money I’m after, Mr Quilley, or may I call you Dennis? Well, not
money, anyway. I’m a widow now. I’m all alone in the
She looked around the room, her piggy eyes glittering, then gave Quilley one of the most disgusting looks he’d ever had in his life.
‘I’ve always fancied living near the lake,’ she said, reaching for another cigarette. ‘Live here alone, do you?’
Francis must be
late, surely, Reed thought as he stood waiting on the bridge by the railway station. He was beginning to feel restless and uncomfortable; the handles of
his holdall bit into his palm, and he noticed that the rain promised in the forecast that morning was already starting to fall.
Wonderful! Here he was, over two hundred miles away from home, and Francis hadn’t turned up. But Reed couldn’t be sure about that. Perhaps
was early. They had made the same
arrangement three or four times over the past five years, but for the life of him Reed couldn’t remember the exact time they’d met.
Reed turned and noticed a plump woman in a threadbare blue overcoat come struggling against the wind over the bridge towards him. She pushed a large pram, in which two infants fought and
‘Excuse me,’ he called out as she neared him, ‘could you tell me what time school gets out?’
The woman gave him a funny look – either puzzlement or irritation, he couldn’t decide which – and answered in the clipped, nasal accent peculiar to the Midlands, ‘Half
past three.’ Then she hurried by, giving Reed a wide berth.
He was wrong. For some reason he had got it into his mind that Francis finished teaching at three o’clock. It was only twenty-five past now, so there would be at least another fifteen
minutes to wait before the familiar red Escort came into sight.
The rain was getting heavier and the wind lashed it hard against Reed’s face. A few yards up the road from the bridge was the bus station, which was attached to a large modern shopping
centre, all glass and escalators. Reed could stand in the entrance there just beyond the doors, where it was warm and dry, and still watch for Francis.
At about twenty-five to four, the first schoolchildren came dashing over the bridge and into the bus station, satchels swinging, voices shrill and loud with freedom. The rain didn’t seem
to bother them, Reed noticed: hair lay plastered to skulls; beads of rain hung on the tips of noses. Most of the boys’ ties were askew, their socks hung loose around their ankles and their
shoelaces snaked along the ground. It was a wonder they didn’t trip over themselves. Reed smiled, remembering his own schooldays.
And how alluring the girls looked as they ran smiling and laughing out of the rain into the shelter of the mall. Not the really young ones, the unformed ones, but the older, long-limbed girls,
newly aware of their breasts and the swelling of their hips. They wore their clothes carelessly: blouses hanging out, black woolly tights twisted or torn at the knees. To Reed, there was something
wanton in their disarray.
These days, of course, they probably all knew what was what, but Reed couldn’t help but feel that there was also a certain innocence about them: a naive, carefree grace in the way they
moved and a casual freedom in their laughter and gestures. Life hadn’t got to them yet; they hadn’t felt its weight and seen the darkness at its core.
Mustn’t get carried away, Reed told himself, with a smile. It was all very well to joke with Bill in the office about how sexy the schoolgirls who passed the window each day were, but it
was positively unhealthy to mean it, or (God forbid!) attempt to do anything about it. He couldn’t be turning into a dirty old man at thirty-five, could he? Sometimes the power and violence
of his fantasies worried him, but perhaps everyone else had them too. It wasn’t something you could talk about at work. He didn’t really think he was abnormal; after all, he
hadn’t acted them out, and you couldn’t be arrested for your fantasies, could you?
Where the hell was Francis? Reed peered out through the glass. Wind-blown rain lashed across the huge plate windows and distorted the outside world. All detail was obliterated in favour of the
overall mood: grey-glum and dream-like.
Reed glanced at his watch again. After four o’clock. The only schoolchildren left now were the stragglers, the ones who lived nearby and didn’t have to hurry for a bus. They
sauntered over the bridge, shoving each other, playing tag, hopping and skipping over the cracks in the pavement, oblivious to the rain and the wind that drove it.
Francis ought to be here by now. Worried, Reed went over the arrangements again in his mind. He knew that he’d got the date right because he’d written it down in his appointment
book. Reed had tried to call the previous evening to confirm, but no one had answered. If Francis had been trying to get in touch with him at work or at home, he would have been out of luck. Reed
had been visiting another old friend – this one in Exeter – and Elsie, the office receptionist, could hardly be trusted to get her own name right.
When five o’clock came and there was still no sign of Francis, Reed picked up his holdall again and walked back down to the station. It was still raining, but not so fast, and the wind had
dropped. The only train back home that night left Birmingham at nine-forty and didn’t get to Carlisle until well after midnight. By then the local buses would have stopped running and he
would have to get a taxi. Was it worth it?
There wasn’t much alternative, really. A hotel would be too expensive. Still, the idea had its appeal: a warm room with a soft bed, shower, colour television and maybe even a bar
downstairs, where he might meet a girl. He would just have to decide later. Anyway, if he did want to catch the train, he would have to take the eight-fifty from Redditch to get to Birmingham in
time. That left three hours and fifty minutes to kill.
As he walked over the bridge and up towards the town centre in the darkening evening, Reed noticed two schoolgirls walking in front of him. They must have been kept in detention, he thought, or
perhaps they’d just finished games practice. No doubt they had to do that, even in the rain. One looked dumpy from behind, but her friend was a dream: long wavy hair tumbling messily over her
shoulders; short skirt flicking over her long, slim thighs; white socks fallen around her ankles, leaving her shapely calves bare. Reed watched the tendons at the back of her knees flex and loosen
as she walked and thought of her struggling beneath him, his hands on her soft throat. They turned down a side street and Reed carried on ahead, shaking off his fantasy.
Could Francis have got lumbered with taking detention or games? he wondered. Or perhaps he had passed by without even noticing Reed sheltering from the rain. He didn’t know where
Francis’s school was, or even what it was called. Somehow, the subject had just never come up. Also, the village where Francis lived was about eight miles away from Redditch and the local bus
service was terrible. Still, he could phone. If Francis were home, he’d come out again and pick Reed up.