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Authors: Elly Griffiths

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Max did, at least, have a room to himself. He was drinking whisky and rubbing cold cream into his face. Edgar found himself staring. He’d never imagined Max using greasepaint somehow. He thought what his father would have said about a man wearing make-up. Well, he didn’t want to be like
him
at any rate.

‘Great show,’ he said. ‘You were brilliant.’

Max smiled and pushed the whisky bottle towards him. ‘Help yourself. Glad you enjoyed it.’

‘That last trick was incredible. How did you do it?’

‘I can’t tell you. I’d be kicked out of the Magic Circle.’

‘You told me that you’d been expelled from the Magic Circle years ago.’

‘Oh, all right then. Trapdoor. When I whirl the table round, it’s positioned over the trap. The girl just gets down and climbs through the hole. A few drum rolls and she’s back in her seat. You can do a version where you set the table alight, but that’s against fire regulations here.’

‘So the girl wasn’t just someone from the audience?’

‘God, no. She’s the stage manager’s daughter. Nice girl.’

Edgar took a sip of his whisky, watching Max carefully removing every trace of grease. What would it be like, he wondered, to do that show twice nightly. Always the same twirl and smile up to the gallery, the same fake surprise as the doves erupted into the air, the same dumb faces tilted towards you.

‘Where did the doves go?’ he asked suddenly.

Max looked surprised. ‘I gave them to Sheila. The girl. Easier to buy another pair when I get to Scarborough. Or I might try something else. A bunch of flowers bursting into flames is always good.’

‘Is that where you’re going next? Scarborough?’

‘Yes. Sunday’s changeover day. I’ve always hated Sundays.’

Watching him in the mirror, Edgar saw Max’s face change. A girl was standing in the doorway. She was one of the dancers, wearing a rather tatty peach satin wrap over her costume.

‘Are you coming to the party, Max?’ she asked. ‘You could bring your friend.’

Edgar watched as the mechanical smile spread over Max’s face. His audience smile.

‘Wish I could, sweetheart, but Ed and I have business to discuss.’

*

Max took Edgar to an Italian restaurant that he knew. It was a little place, tucked away in a back street, but the food was wonderful. Max’s mother had been Italian, Edgar seemed to remember. It was one of the few facts that he knew about him. Presumably it was from her that Max had inherited his dark good looks, the kind that made people speculate about the tar brush.

‘Bit better than the Caledonian Hotel,’ said Max, twirling spaghetti.

‘Bet they don’t do rock cakes though,’ said Edgar. But the mention of the Caledonian, the only bar in the Highland town where the Magic Men had their headquarters, had eased something between them. Edgar found himself telling Max about his job, about how hard he found it having to live up to his reputation as a brilliant ex-secret-service man. ‘And most of the time I know less than the lowliest PC. And they know it too.’

Max confessed that the endless parade of seaside towns was taking its toll. ‘I’d pack it in if there was anything else I could do.’

‘But you’re a brilliant magician.’

‘Yes.’ Typically, Max did not dispute this. ‘But the public don’t want brilliant any more. Have you seen all these new NAAFI comics? There was one on at the Palladium
the other week. They don’t do jokes, they don’t do patter. This character – it was like listening to a mad man on the bus, but the audience loved him. Practically ate him up. Have you heard of a chap called Tommy Cooper? Cooper the Trooper?’

‘No.’

‘He’s a magician. Ex-NAAFI too. And his thing is, he gets it wrong. He does the build-up and the patter and then the trick goes wrong. First time I saw it, I couldn’t believe it. The watch is under this cup, no this one, no – hang on – it’s this one. Brought the house down.’

‘Maybe he did just get it wrong.’

‘No, that’s his act. I’ve seen him a few times. He’s a good magician underneath, I can tell. But audiences don’t want good magicians any more. They don’t want smoke and mirrors and swirling cloaks. They don’t want girls in spangled costumes. They want to see how the trick works. Trouble is, once you tell them how it works, you’re done for.’

‘Speaking of spangled costumes, why don’t you have an assistant?’

Max refilled their glasses. ‘Assistants are too much trouble. I had a fantastic girl before the war, Ethel her name was. She knew exactly when to get the audience’s attention and when to keep still. Most of them never get it right. They’re twirling away when you want the spotlight on you and standing there like a bloody corpse when you want the audience distracted. But Ethel … she was a wonder.’

‘What happened to her?’

‘Got married, like they all do. Married a fireman and lives on the Isle of Wight. She still sends me cards at Christmas.’

Where does she send them, thought Edgar. Max told him that he hadn’t had a permanent address since being discharged. He wanted to ask Max about the dancer, about whether there was a woman in his life, but he didn’t have the nerve somehow.

But Max, it seemed, had been thinking along the same lines.

‘The thing about The Zig Zag Girl,’ he said, pouring the last of the red into Edgar’s glass, ‘is that it’s a trick that depends on the girl. You need a very good girl, one that can get into that middle section in double-quick time. She’s got to be fast and she’s got to be brave.’

‘Why are you telling me this?’ asked Edgar. The wine was making his head feel fuzzy. The picture of the Bay of Naples behind Max’s head was pulsing unpleasantly. Edgar hoped that it wasn’t about to erupt.

Max’s voice seemed to come from a long way away. ‘You wanted my advice about your murder. Well, this is it. Find the girl.’

Chapter 3

The station still hadn’t got over the shock of the box delivered to ‘Captain Stephens’. On the Thursday, the day after the discovery of the head and the legs, the duty sergeant had arrived at Bartholomew Square Police Station to find a black box waiting on the doorstep. None of the night staff had seen it being delivered but, as they had spent most of the night in the basement gathered around a primus stove, this was hardly surprising.

The sergeant, a solid individual called Larry McGuire, picked up the box and carried it to the counter. It was then that he had noticed the smell, a terrible, all-pervading miasma that made him back away, shielding his face. Handkerchief over mouth and nose, he had approached again, seen the typewritten name on the address label, and reached for the phone to call Edgar. By the time Edgar arrived, out of breath from running all the way, there was a small crowd in the reception area.

‘Bloody hell,’ he’d said. ‘What’s that smell?’

McGuire had pointed silently to the box. Edgar recognised it immediately – wooden, black, brass clips – the missing triplet that completes the set.

‘Get a camera,’ he said, ‘we should record this. And call Chief Inspector Hodges.’

When he’d opened it, the smell had sent him staggering backwards. He was dimly aware of Sergeant McGuire clicking away in the background and of the chief’s indrawn breath. A piece of flesh, roughly hacked at the top and bottom, greyish in colour but still, unmistakeably and horribly, part of a human body. Edgar had heard someone retching and the bile had risen in his own throat.

‘There’s something in there,’ said McGuire, his voice reassuringly matter of fact. ‘Looks like a rose. A red rose. It’s still fresh.’

So, on the Monday after his visit to Max, when McGuire told him that a flower-seller was asking for him in Reception, Edgar had thought immediately of the rose. The reception area, with its grand mosaic floor, still smelt strongly of bleach and, when Edgar escorted the woman to the interview room, he could see doors opening and people peering out to watch their progress. The weekend papers had been full of the Brighton trunk murders (though the full details hadn’t been released), and Edgar knew the pressure was on him, as the detective in charge, to make some progress with the case. Frank Hodges had already had strong words for people who spent their weekends gadding about in Eastbourne when there was a murderer to catch.

The flower-seller was a stout woman with a disconcertingly red face. She looked almost pityingly at Edgar as she said, ‘You’re the policeman in charge, aren’t you?’

Edgar agreed that he was.

‘You were asking at the stall about the man that left the packages last week. The ones with the bits of body in them.’

‘That’s right.’

‘Well, I think I saw him. The man.’

‘Really?’ Edgar leant forwards.

‘It was on the Monday. I saw a man carrying two boxes into Left Luggage. Then he came to my stall.’

‘Are you sure it was the same man?’

‘I think so. He was small, I remember that. The boxes looked too big for him. I remember thinking that he might be one of those theatricals.’

This was interesting. ‘Why?’

‘The boxes looked like they could have had instruments in them. And he was small, like I said. He looked foreign. Like one of those foreign musicians.’

‘He looked foreign?’

‘Yes.
Dark
.’ She gave the word a sinister emphasis.

‘Dark-skinned?’

‘No. Dark hair. Except I couldn’t see his hair because he was wearing a cap.’

Edgar sighed. ‘Witnesses,’ Frank Hodges always said. ‘You can’t trust a witness.’

‘He was wearing a cap? Like a sailor’s cap?’

‘No. More like an errand boy. A peaked cap.’

‘Can you remember anything else?’

‘He was wearing a long coat. I thought that was funny for August. Still, it’s been wicked weather for summer.’

‘What did he say to you? Did he buy some flowers?’

‘He bought a rose,’ said the woman. ‘A single long-stemmed red rose.’

*

Later that day, Edgar sought out the cabinet-maker recommended by Max. His workshop was in Hove, close to the cricket ground. ‘D. Fitzgerald,’ said the uncompromising sign, ‘Propmaker’.

D. Fitzgerald was engaged in putting the roof on what looked like a large kennel. On the side, the words ‘Cave Canem’ were written in italic script.

‘What’s that?’ said Edgar.

‘It’s a kennel,’ said D. Fitzgerald straightening up. ‘For a dog.’

‘Oh.’ Edgar was disappointed. ‘It’s not a magic trick then?’

‘No. Magic work is thin on the ground these days. I have to take what I can get.’

Edgar thought about what Max had said about variety dying and no one wanting the traditional magic tricks any more. It seemed a shame somehow that there would be no more girls stepping into cabinets and reappearing in the stalls. And, presumably, prop-makers would have to turn to kennels and wardrobes in order to make their living.

Edgar introduced himself. ‘I got your name from Max Mephisto,’ he said. ‘He said you’d made props for him.’

‘Ah, Max,’ Fitzgerald smiled reminiscently. ‘A real gentleman, is Max. A great magician too. Have you seen him work?’

‘Yes,’ said Edgar. ‘Once or twice.’

‘I made a few cabinets for him. The ghost cabinet. Have you seen that one? And a couple of sword cabinets too.’

‘What about The Zig Zag Girl? Ever make the cabinet for that?’

Fitzgerald looked at him curiously. He was a tall man with curly hair like a bull’s poll. There was something bull-like about his stance too. Edgar imagined that he would be a tough customer in a fight.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I’ve made the cabinet for that.’

‘I wondered if you’d take a look at this.’ Edgar got out one of Sergeant McGuire’s photographs. It showed the box – the third box – sitting on the station counter. The actual box was still in the Evidence Room, but the smell was still so strong that no one would go near it.

Fitzgerald looked up. ‘Is this to do with those murders? The body in the trunk?’

‘Yes.’ Edgar didn’t see any point in denying it. ‘Have you seen boxes like this before?’

Fitzgerald shrugged. ‘Don’t know. It’s just a box.’

‘What about this?’ Edgar showed him a picture of the three boxes stacked on top of each other. ‘Remind you of anything?’

The cabinet-maker scratched his head. ‘It looks like the cabinet for The Zig Zag Girl, but in that case the boxes would all have false bottoms. The girl would have to be
able to stand up and the magician would need to be able to get the blades through. Have these got false bottoms?’

‘No.’ As far as Edgar could see, the boxes were just that – plain wooden cubes painted black. It was just their size and their absolute regularity that brought the trick to mind.

‘Have you any idea who could have made them?’ he asked.

‘Anyone could have put these together,’ said Fitzgerald. ‘You wouldn’t even need to be a carpenter. For a magic cabinet, now, that’s different. You need to be a real artist for that. Take The Zig Zag, for example, the middle box is actually bigger, but you wouldn’t be able to see that from the audience’s viewpoint.’

‘So you’ve no idea who could have made these boxes?’

Fitzgerald shook his head. ‘No. Like I say, they’re just boxes.’ He turned back to his kennel and, as Edgar walked away, he heard the staccato sounds of nails being hammered into wood.

Edgar set off southwards, walking briskly. It was a longish way back to the police station, but the good thing about Brighton was that you couldn’t get lost; you just had to head for the sea. He thought about magic tricks and the stage, about cabinets made to conceal bodies, about deception and artifice. The boxes may just be boxes, but the important thing was that someone wanted them to look like something else.

*

At Bartholomew Square, his boss was waiting for him. Chief Inspector Frank Hodges was a large man with a
drooping moustache given to pessimistic pronouncements about the police force, crime and life in general. He was nearing retirement age, but frequently said that he expected to ‘die in harness’. ‘And with a knife in your back,’ Edgar had heard someone mutter when Hodges last made this comment. The Chief Inspector was not popular with the younger officers.

Today, though, he looked not so much gloomy as enraged.

‘Where have you been?’ he demanded as Edgar entered the Incident Room.

‘Following a lead,’ said Edgar. He tended to assume a calm, professional tone with his boss, knowing that this infuriated him still further.

‘What sort of lead?’

‘A cabinet-maker. Someone who may have known who made the boxes.’

‘And did they know?’

‘No,’ Edgar admitted.

Hodges’ face turned an alarming shade of red. Edgar hoped that this wasn’t the harness moment.

‘The boxes looked as if they might be theatrical props,’ he said soothingly, ‘so I went to see someone who specialised in that sort of carpentry.’

Hodges did not seem even slightly soothed, although his colour faded a little. ‘What’s this obsession with the stage?’ he said. ‘I hear you went to Eastbourne to see a magician, of all people. Get this straight, Stephens. This is
a murder inquiry. The biggest murder case this town has ever seen. It’s not some bloody silly university review.’

Edgar’s two terms at Oxford were a source of never-ending irritation to Frank Hodges. Edgar both resented this and realised that it gave him a certain power over his boss.

‘The boxes reminded me of a magic trick,’ he said. ‘One where it looks as if a girl is cut into three. I saw it performed before the war and I know the man who invented the trick. He’s called Max Mephisto and he was performing in Eastbourne last week.’

‘Max Mephisto.’ Hodges chewed his moustache thoughtfully. ‘He’s quite a big name, isn’t he? Think I saw him in Blackpool once. Performed a hell of a turn with a burning table.’

‘He’s the best-known magician in Britain,’ said Edgar. ‘I served with him in the war.’

‘You
served
with him?’ Frank’s voice suggested that he thought theatricals should have been interned along with the Italians and Jews.

Edgar sighed. He had hoped not to have to go into the whole history of his friendship with Max. ‘You know I was seconded to MI5 in the war,’ he said. This was a pretty fancy way of saying that he was spotted by Colonel Cartwright doing the cryptic crossword on a train. ‘Well, I ended up in this special unit, based near Inverness. Our job was to create false trails for the enemy, to trick them if you like.’

Max, he remembered, had claimed to be able to make ghost fleets ride the north seas. The fact that he had ended
up sailing into enemy waters in a dinghy, accompanied only by Edgar and an aged desperado called The Great Diablo, was nobody’s fault really.

‘Well, Max was part of this unit,’ he concluded. ‘He was an expert at camouflage. He’d worked in North Africa, in the desert. He created these decoy tanks made from wood and canvas. He even painted an aerodrome on canvas. From the air it looked like the real thing.’

Max had created tanks that folded up and could be stored in a suitcase. He had placed one on the front lawn at the Caledonian ready to greet Major Gormley when he opened his bedroom window.

‘This is all very well,’ grumbled Frank. ‘But it doesn’t get us much further with this case.’

‘I suspected that the killer had links to the theatrical world,’ said Edgar. ‘I asked Max if he knew of any specialist cabinet-makers. That’s all.’

‘And did you get anywhere?’

‘No, but I’ve got a possible description of the killer.’ He described the visit from the flower-seller.’

‘So we’re looking for a foreigner?’ Frank brightened perceptibly.

‘Not necessarily,’ said Edgar. ‘The florist just thought he might be foreign because the boxes reminded her of music cases – it’s that theatrical link again. But I asked if he had a foreign accent and she said no. She said he had a soft voice, soft and young.’

‘The man was small, though.’ Frank wasn’t letting that go easily. ‘Foreigners are often small.’

‘Smallish,’ said Edgar. ‘That’s all we have really. A small man wearing a cap and coat.’

‘Could be anyone. Could be bloody Max Miller,’ said Frank.

‘I suspect Mr Miller has an alibi,’ said Edgar.

Frank glared at him. ‘We’re no further forward at all then. Any luck with identifying the girl?’

‘No. I’ve been through the Missing Persons list. Nobody there answering to our girl’s description.’

Five foot ten, long blonde hair, a beautiful figure now cut into grotesque pieces. No, nobody like that had been reported missing in the Brighton area.

‘I’m making inquiries in private lodging houses,’ he said. ‘The sort used by theatricals.’

‘The bloody stage again,’ said Frank. ‘What makes you think the girl was … well, that type?’

Edgar hesitated. He didn’t like to admit that it was Solomon Carter’s phrase about the girl having legs ‘as long as a showgirl’s’ that first put the idea into his head.

‘It’s just a theory,’ he said. ‘But actors live a nomadic life, here one week, gone the next. It’s possible that someone could disappear and not be missed for a while.’

Frank chewed the end of his moustache. He didn’t like the word ‘nomadic’, it had a slippery, foreign sound.

‘Solomon Carter said there were marks around her head which could be consistent with wearing a headdress of some kind,’ said Edgar. ‘The kind worn by an exotic dancer.’ He thought of Sonya and Tanya in their
fur bikinis and Sonya’s face when she had looked at Max. He thought of Max saying, ‘You need a very good girl.’

Frank made the snorting sound again. ‘She could have been a prostitute. Have you thought of that?’

‘Yes,’ said Edgar. ‘We’ve made inquiries in the red light district.’

‘Well, make more inquiries. The press are onto it. We don’t want to look like idiots.’

‘We certainly don’t, sir,’ agreed Edgar.

*

Max enjoyed the drive to Scarborough. Sometimes it felt as if his Bentley were the only thing in his life to have escaped from the war unscathed. It (however much he loved the car, he refused to think of it as ‘she’) had passed the war years hidden in a barn on a farm belonging to an ex-girlfriend. Max would never forget the moment when Joan pulled back the tarpaulin to reveal his treasure, covered in straw but still with tyres and headlamps intact. He could have kissed her. He
would
have kissed her had not her husband, a taciturn farming type, been hovering with a pitchfork.

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