Authors: Elly Griffiths
Max Mephisto stared up at the damp spots on the ceiling. Five and two. Seven-card brag. Find the Lady. Hearts, clubs, diamonds, spades. The darker spots could be spades, if you gave them the benefit of the doubt. Queen of spades. The Dark Lady. One of his best table tricks. You could pluck the baleful-looking queen from a lady’s hair, from her evening bag, even from her cleavage if it was the right kind of club and she was the right kind of girl.
The girl beside him sighed in her sleep. Max had no idea what kind of girl she was and, as this show was only a weekly, he wouldn’t have a chance to find out. Vanda, he thought. Or was it Tanya? One of those Russian-sounding names. Their act was vaguely Russian, he seemed to recall, lots of squatting with arms crossed and legs kicking out. The costumes too had lots of unnecessary fur, though they were skimpier that those generally worn by peasants in the Urals. To be honest, though, the Majestic Theatre, Eastbourne, was probably colder than Siberia, even in August. Where was he going next? Southport, he thought.
Or maybe Scarborough. Somewhere beginning with S. Please God, don’t let it be Skegness.
Mrs Shuttleworth’s bell-like tones. Did she suspect that he had a woman in his room? Well, she knew him so she probably did suspect. But her voice had sounded excited rather than reproving.
‘Yes?’ he shouted, unhelpfully. Vanda/Tanya pulled the pillow over her head.
‘Gentleman to see you.’
Gentleman must mean that he wasn’t a theatrical. Max rejected the idea of coming down in his dressing gown. It might be an agent, someone with news of a really good show, a Number One, somewhere like the Finsbury Park Empire or the Golders Green Hippodrome. He dressed in shirt and trousers, no tie, a respectable-looking tweed jacket. Before he left, he handed the girl her clothes.
‘Better get dressed,’ he said kindly. ‘Landlady’ll be up to do the rooms in a minute.’ Old Mother Shuttleworth never stirred herself to clean the rooms before midday, but the girl wasn’t to know that.
She sat up, trying to stretch in a seductive way. She was pretty enough, even in the daylight, a sort of cut-price Betty Grable. ‘Are you coming to the last-night party?’ she asked. ‘After the second house.’
‘Of course,’ said Max hoping that a better offer would come his way. Maybe he’d be dining with the agent at the Grand.
‘See you later, Max.’
Sonya. That was it.
Mrs Shuttleworth had shown the visitor into the front room, rather than the dining room where some of the pros were still having breakfast. Coming softly down the stairs, Max could hear the unmistakable tones of Ronaldo the Sword Swallower and Walter Armstrong the Impressionist. He crossed the hall without looking round. Ronaldo was more than he could stomach in the morning – swords, it seemed, were the only things he could swallow without spraying the room with crumbs – and Armstrong was tediously devoted to imitating inanimate objects. Max felt that his day could quite comfortably start without hearing a cork being pulled from a bottle or a lavatory cistern gurgling.
Max prided himself on his double-takes, it was a classic way to distract the audience. Open the cabinet door and the girl is …
. Stagger downstage, look wildly up at the royal circle, clutch throat. But stepping into Mrs Shuttleworth’s over-stuffed parlour, he did, in fact, take a genuine step backwards.
‘Ed. Good God.’
Mrs Shuttleworth, hovering in the background, seemed to feel that this exchange lacked something.
‘This gentleman has come to see you specially, Mr Mephisto.’
‘So I see.’
‘I wondered if there was somewhere we could have a chat,’ said Edgar. It was nearly five years since he’d seen Ed. The last time they met was at the end of the war. The Magic Men had been disbanded and they had met at Victoria Station, each on their way to another posting. They had argued, Max remembered, some ridiculous conversation about whether Edgar should go back to university or become a policeman. Well, he had made his choice and here he was, unchanged as far as Max could see. Tall, thin, sandy-haired, looking about him with an air of expectant eagerness. Max knew that in contrast he looked old and seedy. He was ten years older than Edgar, but his eyes had never looked that trusting, even when he was young.
‘I’ll leave you in peace then,’ said Mrs Shuttleworth, after a moment’s pause.
‘No,’ said Max. ‘We can go out for a walk.’
‘But you haven’t had your breakfast yet.’
‘I’m not hungry, thank you, Mrs Shuttleworth.’
‘Breakfast smells terrific,’ said Edgar with a schoolboy grin that would earn him a fortune on the boards in best-friend roles.
‘We keep chickens,’ explained the landlady, though Max felt sure that Edgar could have smelt as much. ‘And it’s easier now bread’s not rationed. I can give you some eggs to take home,’ offered Mrs Shuttleworth expansively. ‘Your wife will be pleased.’
‘I’m not married,’ said Edgar, grin sagging a little.
‘Come on, Ed,’ said Max, ‘let’s get some air.’
Max had lit a cigarette before they had descended the porch steps. He offered his case to Edgar, who shook his head.
‘I’ve given them up.’
‘I just didn’t like being so dependent on something.’
They walked in silence along the promenade. A cold wind was blowing through the palm trees and the sea was a steely, uninviting blue. They stopped in a shelter so Max could light another cigarette. Breathing in the smoke, he said, ‘How did you find me?’
‘I looked in
magazine. “Max Mephisto appearing at the Majestic Theatre, Eastbourne.”’
‘Are policemen reading
magazine these days?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Edgar calmly. ‘But I looked because I wanted to find you.’
‘Why?’ Max squinted at him through the smoke.
‘Let’s walk on a bit and I’ll tell you.’
They walked as far as the pier. The floral clock made Max’s eyes ache – all those clashing ranks of Michaelmas daisies, yellow, purple and orange – he must have had more to drink last night than he realised. The wind was turning the deckchairs into mini sailboats, but there were still a few brave families setting up on the beach.
‘We’ve found a woman’s body,’ said Edgar. ‘Cut into three. The top and bottom were found in the Left Luggage at Brighton station. The middle part was delivered to me at the police station yesterday.’
‘The middle part?’
‘The torso. Breast to hips.’
‘Jesus.’ Max took a drag at his cigarette. ‘And you say this was delivered to you?’
‘Yes. In a black case addressed to Captain Edgar Stephens.’
Stephens. Not PC?’
‘It’s Detective Inspector Stephens. But, yes. They used my army rank.’
They leant on the railings and watched as two children – hardy in striped bathing costumes – built a sandcastle. Max’s eyes stung. He hoped it was just from flying sand.
‘Well, what’s it got to do with me? You chose to join the police. Aren’t dead bodies part of the job?’
‘The way the body was cut into three, each part put into a black box, it reminded me of a magic trick. One you used to do before the war.’
Max was relighting his cigarette. ‘The Zig Zag Girl,’ he said. ‘Girl in a cabinet, blades cut through top and bottom. Pull the mid-section out to make a zig zag shape, open a door to show the midriff. Always a crowd-pleaser. The trick is that the cabinet’s bigger than it looks. Black strips down the sides make it look narrow and the middle part is actually bigger than the top and bottom.’
‘Well this man,’ said Edgar. ‘He actually cut her into three. I’ve seen the pieces.’
Max said nothing so Edgar continued. ‘The whole thing was so theatrical. The way the pieces were found, the middle part – the key part – being sent to me. I just thought it might be …’
‘You thought it might be a lunatic magician.’
There was a silence. The hurdy-gurdy started up on the pier. On the beach the children were laughing as they jumped over the waves.
‘Yes,’ said Edgar at last. ‘I thought it might be a lunatic magician. And, if you’re looking for a lunatic magician, where else to start?’
Max laughed. It felt like the first time he had laughed for years. He had certainly never laughed at Nobby ‘Crazy Legs’ Smith, the comedian on the bill that week.
‘It’s good to see you again, Ed.’
‘Good to see you too. It’s been too long.’
‘Do you see anyone else from the Magic Men?’
At that name, Max stopped laughing. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I don’t see anyone from those days. The war’s been over for five years.’
‘And you can’t think of anyone who’s performing The Zig Zag Girl now?’
Max shrugged. ‘I bet magicians are performing it up and down the country. People copy tricks all the time and it’s not particularly difficult if you’ve got a good cabinet-maker.’
Edgar brightened. ‘Well, that’s a lead for a start. Can you give me the names of the best theatrical cabinet-makers?’
Max turned and began to walk away. Edgar kept pace with him and, after a few moments, Max said, ‘All right. I can give you some names. There’s a good prop-maker near Brighton, as it happens. But I don’t want to get involved. I don’t like the police, remember?’
‘We live in different worlds, Ed. You’re on your way up and me …’ he gestured towards the town behind him, the stuccoed hotels, the flags of nations fluttering from the pier. ‘I’m on my way down.’
‘The Majestic isn’t a Number One then?’
Max laughed. ‘It’s a Number Three on a good day. Variety’s dying, Ed, and I’m dying with it. You should see the bunch on this week’s bill.’
‘I will,’ said Edgar. ‘I’ve got a ticket for tonight’s show.’
The show wasn’t as bad as Max made out, thought Edgar. He’d quite enjoyed the sword-swallowing and the impressions of doors opening and shutting had been mildly entertaining. Max had rightly characterised the comedian, Nobby Smith, as the least funny man in the world, but he seemed to go down well with certain members of the audience. Sonya and Tanya, the exotic dancers, were also popular, though Edgar thought this might be because Sonya’s fur bikini kept slipping. From his vantage point in the stalls, he could see their goose-pimples.
Max was the last act, as befitted his star billing. Max might say that he was on his way out, but it was clear that he was the one most of the audience had come to see. In the interval, as Edgar nursed his warm gin and tonic (a woman’s drink, Tony Mulholland used to say), there was only one name buzzing through the bar. ‘Saw him at the Hippodrome before the war. Incredible …’ ‘They say he escaped from a pyramid in Egypt.’ ‘Of course
he was a spy, you know.’ ‘I heard he was a Nazi.’ ‘Touch of the tar-brush …’ Max was the sort of man who attracted rumours, thought Edgar. It was strange only that some of them were true.
Sonya and Tanya opened the second half with a dance that was vaguely Egyptian in aspiration. Edgar thought about Max and the pyramid. That, too, could be true. He knew that Max had been in Egypt at the start of the war. By the time the Magic Men unit was formed, most of its members had already seen enough action for a lifetime. Except Tony Mulholland, who had somehow managed to avoid the call-up, and The Great Diablo who was sixty-five if he was a day.
A ventriloquist followed the dancers. He was quite good if you accepted that the puppet had a speech impediment. The audience were charitable about his attempts to sing the national anthem whilst drinking a glass of water. Then there was a female impersonator, Madame Foo-Foo. His (her?) act was absolutely filthy and Edgar wondered how it had got past the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. But there was no doubt that Madame Foo-Foo had her fans, particularly in the gallery. She left to what was almost an ovation and the audience settled down to await the great Max Mephisto.
The silence seemed to crackle into expectancy and then almost impatience until, at the last possible minute, Max strolled onto the stage. Edgar hadn’t even realised that he was holding his breath until he exhaled with a sigh. Because, if anything was obvious, it was that there was
nothing to be nervous about. Max was so clearly in charge. Effortlessly elegant in a dinner jacket with the bow tie undone, he grinned sleepily down at the audience. By the time that he had wandered down into the stalls and removed a watch from someone’s ear and a seemingly endless string of pearls from a woman’s handbag, the audience were in the palm of his hand. After a few complicated card tricks, enlivened by a stream of patter wittier than anything heard so far that evening, a trestle table was brought onto the stage and Max invited a girl from the audience to lie on it. A delicious tremor ran through the seats around Edgar. This was what they had come for. The faintly macabre sight of a man leaning over a woman and preparing to dispose of her. Edgar thought of the girl on the slab. This girl was blonde too, and Max solicitously tucked her hair under her neck as he pulled the cloth over her face. Edgar had done the same to the poor remains in the mortuary.
He told himself to keep watching the girl but, as usual, he was distracted by Max who, with a clap of his hands conjured two white doves from thin air. As the doves flew, cooing anxiously, towards the royal box, Max removed the cloth with a flourish. The girl had, of course, vanished. Thunderous applause, redoubling as a spotlight revealed the girl back in her seat looking both embarrassed and relieved. Max bowed, kissed his hand to the gallery and disappeared, not emerging even for the cries of ‘encore’.
Escaping while the anthem was still playing, Edgar made his way to the pass door, as instructed by Max. The
doorman greeted him with a nod. ‘Max? Third on the left. Usually I tell his visitors to watch out for him, but you look like you can take care of yourself.’ Edgar smiled, guessing that Max’s visitors were usually younger and more female. He had never been backstage at a theatre before and he was surprised at how scruffy it was. The Majestic may have seen better days, but the front of house still had a veneer of glamour – red velvet curtains (only slightly moth-eaten), gilded cherubs on the balconies, a chandelier glittering up above the gods. But behind the pass door there were dusty floorboards and pipes running along the low ceiling. There was also a strong smell of damp. Edgar passed a dressing room which was obviously shared by the ventriloquist, the sword-swallower and the impressionist. He heard the sound of a champagne cork popping and wondered if that was Walter Armstrong at work. He couldn’t imagine champagne being drunk here otherwise.