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Authors: Elly Griffiths

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BOOK: The Zig Zag Girl
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‘Edgar, dear boy! Where have you been? I was worried about you.’

‘No you weren’t.’ Edgar sat in the chair opposite. ‘Is there any beer left?’

‘Sorry, I only bought four. You’re welcome to share this one.’

‘No thank you.’

Diablo leant back on the cushions, apparently completely relaxed. The wireless was playing swoopy versions of old love songs. Diablo sang along in a reedy tenor. ‘If you were the only girl in the world …’

‘I went to see Major Gormley today.’

‘Did you? How is the old monster?’

‘Not so good. Lonely, bored, looking after his sick wife.’

‘He must be getting on a bit now.’

By Edgar’s calculations, the Major was at least ten years younger than Diablo, but he didn’t want to spoil the old boy’s good mood. ‘Major Gormley said that Tony had dropped in last Christmas, just to wish him the compliments of the season.’

Like Max, Diablo seemed to find this amusing. ‘Tony paying a social call? Can’t quite see it, old boy. No, if Tony called on Gormley, it was because he wanted something.’

‘Yes,’ said Edgar. ‘But what?’

Diablo shrugged his shoulders. After a few moments, he started to sing along to the wireless again. ‘A garden of Eden, just made for two. With nothing to mar our joy.’

‘Did you go out today?’ asked Edgar, indicating the
beers. ‘You have to be a bit careful, you know, with a lunatic on the loose.’

‘Oh, I’m used to lunatics,’ said Diablo. ‘After all, I’ve been on the circuit for almost fifty years.’

‘All the same,’ said Edgar, ‘I wouldn’t want anything to happen to you.’

‘You are sweet, dear boy.’ To Edgar’s surprise, and consternation, Diablo’s eyes filled with tears. ‘We are good friends – aren’t we – you, me and Max? I often think about those two years in Scotland. Happiest time of my life.’

This struck Edgar as profoundly sad, if true. He said nothing.

‘I often think about them,’ said Diablo. ‘And about her, Charis. Such a lovely face. Sometimes, you know, I think I see her. Just out of the corner of my eye. And then she’s gone.’

Edgar was startled. He too had often had this sensation. A flash of red hair, a way of walking, a tilt of the head. Once he had followed a woman the length of Western Road, only to have her turn and accuse him of stalking her.

But this confidence seemed to have exhausted Diablo. He shut his eyes and the wireless segued into ‘The Blue Danube’.

Edgar went into the kitchen in search of food.

Chapter 23

Edgar set off early the next morning. He had commandeered the Wolsey again and had steeled himself to call in on his mother on the way to Bill’s. He knew he had to do it like this: a quick visit with a limited time frame, otherwise he’d find himself sucked into Esher Time, an endless Sunday afternoon with no hope of redemption. It wasn’t that he didn’t love his mother, he told himself defensively as he passed the Brighton gates, it was just that, however much she complained that he didn’t visit enough, she never seemed to get much pleasure from his actual presence. Even Jonathan, always her favourite child, had been the cause of endless worry – his sickness, his sore throats, his woeful lack of road-sense. When she got the telegram about Jonathan, she had looked up at Edgar and Lucy and said, ‘I always knew this would happen.’ Had she really always thought all through Jonathan’s childhood that her youngest child would end his days as part of a doomed expeditionary force, be shot and killed, his body lost under the sea? It was profoundly depressing if so.

He hadn’t warned her that he was coming. That way she might be out and it wouldn’t be his fault. But, as he drew near to the house, he could see his mother at the kitchen window, washing up. Why was she washing up? There was only one person in the house. He used the same plate every day, rinsing it immediately after use. He resented cleaning up after Diablo, who seemed determined to use every utensil in the house.

Edgar walked slowly up the path. The garden was the same, paved (less trouble), with a neat border of annuals around the edge. His father used to enjoy gardening, he remembered, but to his mother Outside was an accident waiting to happen. He wasn’t surprised to see that the hanging baskets had been taken down. Those things were a death-trap.

The doorbell played the same tinkling theme. And there was Rose, still wearing her rubber gloves.

‘Edgar!’ she exclaimed. ‘What’s happened? Is it Lucy?’

*

Max was making his way round the Royal Crescent. He knew that this was far too expensive an address for a twenty-year-old secretary, but it was the only crescent in Brighton that he hadn’t tried. This was hardly a crescent anyway, just a shallow curve of tall houses built of shiny black brick. Nevertheless, Max knocked on every door and was met by flat denial, blank incredulity and (once) a brazen invitation upstairs. Refusing politely, Max raised his hat and backed away. At the end of the row, he stood for a minute looking at the houses. The closed doors and
shuttered windows stared smugly back at him. Where was Ruby? Was she hiding behind a similar door or was she somewhere more unexpected entirely? She wanted to be a magician and it seemed that she had successfully performed her first disappearing act. He remembered the clues, the half clues, the misdirections – the parents in Hove, the flatmate, the recommendation from Raymondo. Was it an illusion after all?

Max crossed the road and stood looking out over the sea. It was another cloudy hot day, the sky the same colour as the water. It was Friday and he was due to leave Brighton on Sunday. How could he leave without having found Ruby? How could he perform on stage in Hastings, knowing that she might be in danger? But he couldn’t cry off. Unreliability was the greatest sin in the showbusiness world. If word got round that Max Mephisto had missed a gig, he would be finished.

At least he was only in Hastings. He could be in Brighton in a couple of hours if Edgar needed him. But would Edgar need him? He sensed that over the last few days Edgar had been edging away from him. When they had driven back from Yarmouth with Diablo, there had been a sense of reunion, of recreating those days in Scotland when the Magic Men had seemed a closed circle, isolated from a world at war. But, ever since Bill’s visit, he thought that Edgar had been distancing himself, making it clear that he was the policeman and Max was a civilian. There was no more Dick Barton stuff; him and Ed on the road together, fighting crime and righting wrongs. Max had
been furious when Edgar had asked him if he too had received a letter from Tony. For a moment it had seemed that he was actually a
suspect
. He lit a cigarette, forcing himself to think rationally. Of course he should be a suspect. Clearly the killer was someone who knew about the Magic Men. Tony was dead, that left him, Edgar, Diablo, the Major and Bill. There were other people as well – a number of WAAFs, Colonel Cartwright, the staff at the Cally. Could one of them be a murderer?

He was leaning on the railings looking down on Madeira Drive, the broad promenade next to the sea. As he watched, a figure in a white suit passed below him, walking briskly. He noticed the suit at first. Men didn’t wear white suits these days, it was something you associated with gangsters and old theatricals. Co-respondent shoes too. He saw them flash as the man hurried by. He looked again. The white-suited man was walking faster, almost running, and his face was stern and purposeful. Not an expression he would associate with a befuddled old magician. But there was no doubt that the man was Stan Parks, alias Diablo.

*

‘You should have told me you were coming. It was a shock, seeing you standing there.’

‘It’s just a quick call. I’m on my way to London.’

‘A quick call.’ Her face fell. ‘How long?’

Cursing himself, Edgar said breezily, ‘I’ve got at least an hour. I’m not in any real hurry.’

‘I have to go out at eleven,’ said Rose. ‘It’s my day for helping at the hospital.’

That was typical of his mother, reflected Edgar, as he waited in the sitting room while she made tea. First she made him feel guilty, as if he were depriving her of time with her only surviving son, and then she made him feel unwelcome, as if he were intruding on her busy schedule. He looked around the room. On the mantelpiece over the electric fire there were three photographs: one of Lucy on her wedding day, a large one of Jon in uniform and one of himself on a bicycle with a fatuous expression on his face. Why on earth had she chosen that picture? Here’s my happily married daughter, my hero son and the village idiot. Why not one of him in uniform? He’d had a respectable army career, if you ignored the Magic Men years. Or one of him in police uniform? But he knew that, however much she denied it, his mother was ashamed of his job. This wasn’t why she had made him stay inside and do his homework, so he could mix with low-life and criminals. He wondered what she’d say if he told her about his present case.

‘Is that your car outside?’ asked his mother, returning with a laden tray.

‘No. It’s a police car. I’ve got a friend with a Bentley,’ he offered, wondering if the possession of a successful friend would make up for his failure to acquire a car of his own.

But Rose pursed her lips. ‘A bit flash.’

‘He is a bit flash. It’s Max Mephisto. You remember, my friend from the army.’

‘The magician?’ Rose looked shocked. ‘Why are you in touch with him again?’

‘He’s appearing at the theatre in Brighton.’

‘I expect they like that sort of thing in Brighton.’ Rose disapproved of Edgar’s adopted town.

‘Uncle Charlie took Jon and me to see Max when we were children,’ said Edgar, accepting a cup of beige tea. ‘At least, I think it was Uncle Charlie.’

Rose nodded, pursing her lips again. ‘On Hastings pier,’ she said. ‘Johnny was sick afterwards.’

‘He was always being sick.’ Sometimes Edgar thought that it would be better if they could talk about Jonathan normally.

But his mother’s eyes filled with tears. ‘He was very sensitive. Not like you,’ she added.

Edgar accepted the rebuke. ‘Have you seen Lucy recently?’ he asked.

‘She came last weekend with the boys. They’re getting so big.’ This was said not admiringly, but rather as if Lucy’s sons were growing bigger for the specific purpose of inconveniencing their grandmother.

‘I haven’t seen them for ages. I must go up to Hertfordshire. Or invite them down to Brighton.’ He thought of Lucy and her family sharing the flat with Diablo and suppressed a grin.

‘No,’ said his mother, on a falling note which immediately quenched any desire to smile. Ever again. ‘She said she hadn’t seen you.’

‘What about you? Are you keeping busy? What are you doing at the hospital?’

‘It’s the incurables,’ said Rose. ‘They keep very cheerful, considering.’

Edgar looked at the clock over the mantelpiece. Only half an hour to go.

*

Max watched the white figure until it disappeared into the crowd by the Palace Pier. What was Diablo doing, dressed up to the nines and clearly on a serious mission? According to Edgar, he hardly left the house, rotting gently in a miasma of alcohol and nostalgic dance tunes. But, on the day that his host was out of town, here was Diablo, positively running to some assignation. Max stood for a moment, undecided, then he too headed back towards the centre of town. He didn’t know where Diablo was going, but there was one cast-iron rule where pros were concerned. In any given town, they would always head straight for the theatre.

*

By eleven o’clock, Edgar was ready to leave. Or kill himself. Whichever was the quickest. Rose had moved on from the incurables to her neighbour’s heart problems and the butcher’s obstinacy in refusing to stock pie veal. Edgar drank his tea and wondered what would happen if he burst into this recital with the news that he was tracking a man capable of sawing a woman into three. He imagined his mother’s mouth pursing as it used to do when he mentioned something that wasn’t very
nice
. ‘Not our sort of person,’ he could hear her saying, as she did when he brought the rag-and-bone man’s son home.

The cuckoo clock in the hall chirped the hour. Edgar reached for his hat. ‘I’d better be off, Mum.’

Rose’s face fell. ‘So soon?’

‘You said you had to go out at eleven.’

‘I could always cancel it,’ said Rose, fiddling with the tea things. ‘I never really know what to say to the incurables.’

‘You go, Mum,’ said Edgar, edging towards the door. ‘They’d miss you if you didn’t go.’

‘They wouldn’t,’ said Rose. ‘They prefer Millie White. She plays poker with them.’

‘Next time I’ll make it a proper visit,’ said Edgar. He kissed his mother’s cheek. She smelt of Penhaligon’s Blue-bell.

Rose sniffed, but she kissed him back and told him to look after himself. She took the tray into the kitchen and gathered up her handbag and hat, clearly resigned to the hospital visit. At the door, Edgar asked, ‘Why have you got that awful picture of me on the mantelpiece? The one with the bike?’

Rose reached out to pat his cheek in a way that was almost spontaneously affectionate. ‘It’s the only picture I’ve got where you look happy,’ she said.

*

Max reached the theatre just as Roy Coulter was going out for lunch. ‘Join me if you like. I’ve only got half an hour.’

They went to the same cafe in the Pavilion Gardens where Max had drunk coffee with Edgar. Max ordered coffee again, but the theatre manager worked his way through tomato soup followed by a cheese roll.

Max tried not to watch Coulter burying his face in his soup. English food, he thought with a shudder.

‘I’m looking for Stan Parks,’ he said. ‘You know, The Great Diablo. I’d heard he was in town.’

‘Diablo!’ Coulter gave a snort. ‘Had him on the bill once and ended up having to bail him out. Drunk and disorderly in a public place.’

‘But have you seen him today?’

Maddeningly slow, Coulter wiped the soup stains from his moustache.

‘Funny you should ask that …’

‘Well, have you?’

‘Yes, he came in this morning. All dolled up in a white suit. For one horrible moment I thought he was going to ask me for work.’

‘What did he want?’

Coulter looked at him impassively. ‘Same thing as you. He was looking for the girl.’

‘Which girl?’

‘Your assistant. Ruby Whats’ername. Seemed very keen to speak to her.’

*

Edgar reached Wembley at one o’clock. An innocuous time of day, he thought. Lunchtime. Mothers making sandwiches, children picnicking in gardens, grandparents snoozing in the shade. He remembered his father coming home for lunch every day of his working life and wondered whether Bill would do the same. Well, if not, it would be a chance to talk to Jean on her own. He shivered
slightly at the thought of what this might entail. Could Diablo really be right about Jean having a crush on him? Apart from that one memory on the towpath, he had no recollection at all of Jean in Inverness. Those days were all illuminated by Charis – her sleepy smile, her creamy skin, her blazing crown of hair. Sometimes even looking at a map of Scotland could make him blush, remembering. There was no room for Jean, or anyone else really. He remembered playing cards with Max in the Caledonian bar, the stags’ heads looking down as if they wanted to offer advice (despite offering generous handicaps, Max always won). He remembered walking with Charis by the Ness. He remembered floating in the open boat with Max and Diablo. He remembered – even though he wasn’t there – the
Ptolemy
burning in the darkness. This last was almost the strongest image, despite being second-hand. He thought that he could smell the flames, hear the desperate cries of the onlookers, even, beneath the shouting and the confusion, hear Charis’s voice calling piteously for him. But, try as he would, he couldn’t remember exchanging a single word with Jean.

The house with the wishing well was silent. Edgar knocked on the door. The sound echoed dully, but no smiling housewife appeared at the door, ready to welcome him in for a chat about the good old days. A bird was singing manically in the apple tree and, a few doors away, children were laughing as they played in the garden. Had Jean taken Barney to play with them? Was she shopping or visiting her own version of the incurables? He doubted
it somehow. On impulse, he tried the door handle. The door opened.

Afterwards, he wondered why he had been so sure that something was wrong. After all, it wasn’t unknown to leave front doors open in safe suburban streets. But Edgar’s skin crackled with fear and he felt at his waist for his police-issue truncheon (he had forgotten to bring it, as ever).

BOOK: The Zig Zag Girl
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