Authors: Elly Griffiths
He had left early, in order to avoid saying goodbye to anyone at the digs. Thank God, none of them were going on with him to Scarborough. He tried to remember who was on the bill with him there. One of the new comedians, he thought, and a singer who had made it big with patriotic numbers during the war. ‘There’ll Always Be an England’, that sort of thing. Still, the Alexandra was a nice theatre and he was going to stay with an old friend,
a girl who had once been part of a double act and now ran a boarding house. What was her act called again? Sometimes he saw the names on a never-ending playbill in his head: the Great Supremo, Leandra’s Feats with the Feet, Lou Lenny and her Unrideable Mule, Raydini The Gay Deceiver, Petrova’s Performing Ponies. He’d got it. The Diller Twins. Though they hadn’t even been sisters, let alone twins. They didn’t even look alike. Pretty enough girls, though. He and Brenda had enjoyed one memorable summer in Scarborough and had kept in touch even after Brenda had married a man who could rip telephone directories in two. What was
name? The Mighty something or other. He could never remember the men.
He made good time and reached Scarborough just before eight. As he drove along the seafront, he saw the towers of the Grand looming over the town. Once he had stayed in the Grand for a whole season. Now he was reduced to boarding houses and he could see a time when he’d be sleeping in the Bentley, a shambling figure standing on street corners taking flowers out of his hat and begging passers-by to choose a card. He shook his head, irritated at this self-pitying theme. He needed a holiday, that was all. After Scarborough he was back down in Brighton, then he had a two-week break. He’d go away, somewhere civilised like Le Touquet. There was still some money for that. He wasn’t quite reduced to busking yet.
Brenda met him at the door. She was still attractive, with creamy skin and red hair, but marriage to the strong
man and the birth of two children had enlarged her contours somewhat.
‘Max!’ She kissed him on the cheek. ‘You look exactly the same. You’ll never get older.’
‘I feel a hundred,’ said Max.
‘That’s just the drive. You’ll feel just dandy after a rest and a glass of sherry.’
‘You’re a wonderful woman, Brenda.’
And he did feel better after a hearty meal and two glasses of (disgustingly sweet) sherry. Larry, the strong man, turned out to be an affable fellow and they spent a pleasant hour reminiscing over old names.
‘Raydini! What happened to him?’
‘Heart attack at the Wood Green Empire.’
‘What a way to go.’
‘What about your twin?’ Max turned to Brenda, who was looking quite alluring in the light from the gas fire. ‘The other Diller girl?’
‘Peggy? I don’t know. I lost touch with her. Last I heard, she was down in Brighton.’
‘I’m there next week,’ said Max easily. ‘I’ll look out for her. Is she still in the business, do you know?’
‘Yes.’ Brenda gave her full-throated laugh. ‘Actually, last I heard she was following in your footsteps, Max. She was a magician’s assistant.’ Larry opened the door to let the cat out, but this wasn’t the only reason for the small, cold chill that ran through the room.
‘What makes you think it was her? Peggy?’
Edgar heard Max sigh down the phone.
‘I just thought it might be a possibility. She was last heard of in the Brighton area.’
‘What did she look like?’
‘Tall, blonde, good legs.’
‘Mid to late twenties, I suppose.’
Edgar stared at the wall opposite, which was dominated by a poster telling him to put on his lights while driving at night.
‘Have you got a photo?’ Max was saying.
‘We took pictures, but I can’t show them to you. I’d need special permission.’ He could just imagine what Frank Hodges would say.
‘You never used to care so much about the rules, Ed.’
This was below the belt. Edgar remembered that Max always fought dirty.
‘The pictures are pretty disturbing,’ he said at last.
‘I’m a big boy. I can cope.’
‘All right. I’ll put a photo in the post tomorrow. Ring me as soon as you get it.’
‘Aye, aye, Captain.’
There’s nothing more annoying, mused Edgar, putting the phone down, than being addressed as ‘captain’ by someone who technically outranks you.
It was nearly the end of the day. Edgar sat at his desk listening to the now-familiar haunted-house noises as the old building settled down for the night. The police station at Bartholomew Square was built in the classical style. Outside it was imposing, with monstrous pillars two storeys high. The reception area boasted an Italian mosaic floor and marble busts of Brighton luminaries. But, as you descended the steps to the CID headquarters, you entered a different world. Tiled walls dripped with moisture and sometimes, turning a corner in one of the subterranean corridors, you could hear mice – or worse – scuttling ahead. Frank Hodges had told Edgar that this part of the building had actually been condemned in the 1930s, but the police stuck stubbornly to their gloomy suite of rooms.
Naturally, the police station had its resident ghosts. The site was once a medieval monastery – St Bartholomew’s – and it was said that sometimes a monk could be seen moving casually through the thick stone walls of the basement. The monastery well was still under the floor somewhere, you could hear it gurgling away on stormy nights. But Edgar usually found himself thinking of a
more recent spectre. Brighton’s first chief of police, Henry Solomon, was murdered at the station in the eighteenth century, killed by a petty thief he had brought in for questioning. Edgar often imagined the scene. Apparently Solomon had seated the man in front of the fire, attempting to calm him down. He had turned his back and the felon picked up a poker and battered him to death. The room where it happened was cold, even in summer, and a dark figure was sometimes seen standing by the marble mantelpiece or descending the steps to the cells. Edgar didn’t believe in the ghost, but he did think that the story contained a few important policing lessons. Don’t be too nice to suspects was one. Don’t turn your back on them was another.
The Incident Room was empty, so Edgar was able to find the file marked, uncompromisingly, ‘Mutilated Girl’, and extract a photograph. Despite his words on the phone, Edgar decided to spare Max the worst. He selected a picture that showed the girl from the neck up. He was struck again how, despite the pallor and the closed eyes, it could be a glamour shot. Her face was symmetrical and perfect, full lips closed in what was almost a smile. In life she must have been a very beautiful woman. He put the photo in a brown envelope addressed, as instructed, c/o The Alexandra Music Hall, Scarborough.
He decided to post the letter on his way home. After an overcast day, the evening was soft and mild. When he got to the top of the hill, Brighton was already lost in the summer smog. It was like walking through the clouds.
Edgar thought about Max’s telephone call. Was the dead girl really Peggy Ollerenshaw, once part of a double act known as The Diller Twins? He wondered why he was so sure that the girl had theatrical connections. Partly it was the way the body had been found –
was the word that came to mind – cut into three like a macabre version of Max’s famous trick. Partly it was her appearance, the long blonde hair, the legs. She wasn’t that young, though. Late twenties, Solomon Carter thought, which would tie in with Peggy again. Had this girl fallen on hard times, no longer young enough for the chorus line, desperate enough to become involved with a dubious character who turned out to be not so much seedy as murderous?
When he reached his digs, his neighbour, Mrs Finneghan, was standing in her front garden. Having once seen Edgar talking to the traffic policemen on the seafront, she had become convinced that this was his job.
‘How are the cars, Mr Stephens?’
‘There seem to be more of them every day, Mrs Finneghan.’ He had given up trying to tell her his real profession and, besides, it was soothing to think of a parallel existence where all he had to do was stop cars crashing into each other.
‘There ought to be a law against it,’ said Mrs Finneghan comfortably. She went back to feeding the seagulls.
Edgar let himself in and went straight for the whisky. One of the benefits of living on the ground floor was the use of a dusty square of garden. Edgar took his drink and sat on the back step, watching the birds swooping down
to avail themselves of Mrs Finneghan’s soup kitchen. Seeing Max again had brought back all sorts of memories; memories that, for five years, he had sought to expunge by working his way through the police ranks and trying not to antagonise Frank Hodges. Now he knew that if he let them, they would take him over and he would be there again, drifting on the open sea with Max and Diablo, watching Charis die.
It had been odd seeing Max in his own milieu. He had known, of course, that Max was a magician and it was the memory of seeing him on stage that had sparked the idea about The Zig Zag Girl. But it had been strange seeing him in his backstage world of greasepaint and showgirls and men doing sword-swallowing impressions. Seeing Madame Foo Foo in the corridor, dressed in basque and stockings and smoking a pipe, he hadn’t been able to stop himself trying to imagine what his mother would have said. He wondered if he was drawn to Max because he was the antithesis of everything his parents stood for. Max, who had thrown off his upper-class background and replaced it with a showman’s cape. What would have shocked his mother most about Max? The Italian mother (reputedly an ex-opera singer), the titled father or the life spent in seedy boarding houses, a different woman in his bed every night and the same woman disappearing on the stage every evening? ‘Rich people are all very well,’ his mother had said once, ‘as long as they keep in their proper place.’ Max, performing on stage at the Alexandra Music Hall, was about as far from his proper place as you
could imagine. Or perhaps he was in it? Edgar couldn’t imagine Max stalking grouse or taking tea in drawing rooms (he admitted that his view of upper-class life was rather limited). Even during the war, in the wilds of Inverness, there had been a showbiz glamour about Max.
Who had taken him to the end-of-the-pier show where he had seen Max perform the The Zig Zag Girl trick? It couldn’t have been his parents. Maybe it was his rather raffish Uncle Charlie, who had grown rich from the black market and now drove a purple Rolls-Royce. He did remember that they had eaten fish and chips afterwards and Jonathan had been so excited that he’d been sick. ‘Things always go to Jonny’s stomach,’ their mother said when they got home. When Edgar heard that Jon was at Dunkirk, his first – ridiculous – thought was to worry that he would be seasick. What wouldn’t he give to have him here now, his smiling, sensitive brother who had never lived long enough to have a job or a woman or even a proper shave?
That was the problem with whisky. It made you maudlin. He wouldn’t think about Jon or the war and certainly not about Charis. That part of his life was over. Edgar went back indoors to search in the cupboard for a tin of corned beef.
When Max arrived at the theatre on Wednesday, the letter was waiting for him. At first he didn’t recognise the handwriting and the brown envelope looked ominous. He put it aside and carried on with his make-up. Wednesday first
house was always tough. Max knew he’d get them in the end, but they were sticky. He had to work hard to get the laughs and the gasps and the ‘how did he do that’s’. When he finally pulled the cloth away revealing the empty table and Brenda’s cousin’s daughter was discovered smiling back in her seat, the audience applauded with a kind of groan as if they resented being impressed. Back in his dressing room, Max took off his greasepaint and drank cold coffee (whisky would have to wait until after the second house). It was only then that he remembered the letter, propped up against the mirror.
He opened it carelessly, getting a smudge of five and nine on the envelope. The photograph fell to the floor and he had to scramble for it in the dust (the dressing rooms at the Alexandra were filthy). Eventually he held the picture under the bright mirror lights. What he felt was a kind of lurch, as if he’d missed a step or had opened the cabinet to find the girl still there, staring at him. He put a hand to his head and realised that he was shaking. The room spun like the Wall of Death at a fairground, but the girl stayed at the still centre of it, eyes closed, pale as death.
‘My God,’ said Max aloud.
The years were spinning too. Max was back in Hastings before the war and his assistant was twirling in the footlights, knowing exactly when to divert the audience’s attentions to her charms.
Brighton had always been one of Max’s favourite towns. In some vague way, he thought they were alike. Like him, the town was classless, raffish, slightly secretive. The hotels on the seafront (he was staying at the Old Ship) presented a smooth, well-bred façade, but at the back, where the kitchens spilled out into the alleys, all was chaos and decay; rats scuttled past overflowing bins and tramps fought the seagulls over the remains of flounder fillets
à la moutarde
. Edgar said there was a lot of crime in the town.
But, as Max walked through the Pavilion Gardens towards the Theatre Royal, he wasn’t thinking about Brighton or about the week’s show. He was thinking about Ethel. How had she ended up here, the victim of some random sadist? He had been sure that Ethel was living in married bliss on the Isle of Wight. But now he saw that the Christmas cards, ‘with best wishes from Ethel and Michael’, concealed a darker truth. Because, if one thing was for certain, it was that happily married women didn’t
end up chopped into three and their body parts scattered around seaside towns. Something must have happened to Ethel and, given their past connection, he couldn’t help wondering if he was somehow to blame.
He was meeting Ed after band call. Would Edgar the supersleuth be able to solve the mystery? He had his doubts. He knew Ed was clever (apparently he had scored off the scale on the intelligence tests for MI5), but Max had always felt that Edgar was somehow too innocent for police work. If ever a chap had been suited to going back to Oxford after the war and finishing his degree, it was Ed. Max had fought hard to convince him of this, but Edgar seemed fixated on some stupid public service ideal, probably connected with his brother’s death and what had happened to Charis. They had argued in a bar in Victoria station, Ed protesting almost tearfully that Britain had to change and everyone had to ‘do their bit’. ‘Suit yourself,’ Max had said. ‘I’m going back to my old life and I’m never going to think about anyone else ever again.’ Except that his old life – champagne, dancing girls, delirious audiences – didn’t exist anymore and now here he was, not only thinking about his old partner but coming damn close to vowing to track down her murderer. Steady on, Max, he told himself sternly, you’re not Dick Barton, you’re a stage magician. Ethel’s killer was probably some down-and-out who got his thrills from mutilating beautiful women. Except, said the voice in his head, she was your assistant and her torso was sent directly to your friend.
The pillars and archways of the Theatre Royal were sparkling in the sun. It was a snug little venue, somehow managing to be both grand and welcoming at once. ‘Max Mephisto’ screamed the billboards. Max pulled his hat down over his eyes and headed off to find the stage door. The last thing he wanted was to be spotted looking admiringly at his own posters.
The stage door was in a side street. It was open and the narrow hallway full of boxes and trunks. Max recognised his own stage kit and some boxes labelled AM. Who the hell was AM? He tried to remember who was on the bill with him this week. A comedian, but then there are comedians everywhere these days. A juggler that he last saw – pissed out of his head – trying to get off with a waxwork in Blackpool. Some girls, of course. After a while all the girls merge into one – feathers and headdresses and lipsticked smiles. All except Ethel. She was different.
He saluted the commissionaire (a huge man who seemed wedged into his booth) and made his way towards the auditorium. He was slightly late and knew he’d have to wait his turn. Monday band calls operate on a strictly first-come-first-served basis. Max might be top of the bill, but as he hadn’t got his music in front of the orchestra first, he would be condemned to a morning of listening to ‘The Chocolate Soldier’ played (fortissimo) by a gaggle of amateur musicians. As he made his way through the stalls, he saw that the process had already started. A sharp-suited young man stood on stage tapping his foot and from the
pit came the sound of two violins and a cello tuning up half-heartedly. A voice behind Max said, ‘Lot of bloody upstarts in the business these days.’
Max turned and looked into the watery eyes of Geronimo the Juggling Genius, aka Bert Hoskins from Hartlepool.
‘Good to see you, Max, you old bastard.’
‘Do you know smarty-bloody-pants up there?’ Bert gestured towards the stage with an unlit cigarette.
‘Yes. I’m afraid I do.’
He had recognised him immediately. Tony Mulholland. And he remembered almost the last time he’d seen Tony, standing on a beach watching Max’s great invention burn to ashes. With Charis inside.
Max didn’t get a chance to speak to Tony until after the band call. Tony took a long time going through his music, speaking in a low, expressionless voice that didn’t carry into the auditorium. When he had finished, he didn’t go into the stalls to join the other pros. He stalked out, watched resentfully by the orchestra. Max too viewed his retreating pinstriped back with dislike. What the hell was Tony doing here? They all thought that he had given up the stage. Besides, Max had a clause in his contract saying that he would always be the only magician on the bill. Tony had quite a name before the war. He specialised in card tricks and mesmerism, ending his act by hypnotising a member of the audience. It was a different kind of
magic from Max’s, but there was no doubt that Tony was an extremely polished performer, smooth and slightly dangerous. Max had seen him work once and there was something chilling about watching Tony staring into a young woman’s eyes and then leading her onto the stage where she would bark like a dog at his command. Tony had been brought into the Magic Men to concentrate on what Major Gormley called ‘mind-games’. And in this he had certainly succeeded.
After Tony, a comedy dance troupe practised tap-dancing to ‘Colonel Bogey’. Then a woman with a voice like a corncrake trilled her way through ‘Cherry Ripe’. Max took the stage still shaking her top notes out of his ears.
‘Hello, Max. Good to see you again.’
‘Hello, Franz. How are you?’
The musical director at the Theatre Royal was a once-famous violinist, a German Jew who had been interned during the war. He had always been good to Max (a conductor can ruin a young pro’s act – starting too late or too early, drowning out his gags) and now seemed genuinely moved to see him again. Max felt a stab of guilt. He had always meant to write to Franz on the Isle of Man, but had got no further than buying a postcard of a Stradivarius, which he had never got round to sending.
‘The usual tab music, Mr Mephisto?’
‘If you would, maestro.’
Max always came on to a slow arrangement of the ‘Danse Macabre’. It was slower than ever here as one
violin seemed to be lagging behind the others. Franz grimaced up at Max. ‘Vienna Philharmonic it isn’t.’
‘It’s fine. Thank you.’
Max went through the music for each trick – the build-up, the misdirection, raising the stakes, the reveal. He was aware that he was rushing, half his mind on Tony Mulholland. Why was he in Brighton? He must have known that Max was on the bill, given that his photo was plastered all over the theatre. Was it possible that Tony actually
to see him again? But, if so, why disappear like that? That was the problem with magicians, thought Max, thanking Franz and exiting stage left: they always knew how to disappear.
Max made his way towards the entrance hall. He was meeting Edgar at a cafe in the Pavilion Gardens and thought he could do with a walk and a smoke first. He passed the bar (which had a convenient hatch that opened onto the stage) and pushed open the swing doors. The foyer at the Theatre Royal sloped steeply downwards. It was like being onboard ship. The little gold chairs on either side of the fireplace seemed almost to be moving, sliding slowly southwards. Max had a sudden vision of the
tilting into the sea while the orchestra (hopefully in better tune than this one) played on. As he stood, disorientated for a moment, a man stepped out from behind a potted plant.
‘Max. Long time no see.’
‘Still the same. The Great Max Mephisto.’
Max noted the mockery behind the words, but elected to take them at face value. ‘Thank you. I’m surprised to see you here. I thought you’d given up the business.’
Tony shrugged. He looked older, thought Max, thinner and more wary. It suited him though, and the sharp suit hung elegantly on his spare frame. His voice had changed too. When Max had met him, Tony had been working hard to eradicate his Cockney accent. Now it was back with a vengeance, almost a swagger.
‘Well, you can’t get the business out of your blood. You know that, me old china.’
Me old china
. Was this some kind of a nightmare?
‘Are you doing a magic act?’ If so, Max added silently, I’ll sue you.
‘Magic. Nah!’ Exaggerated shudder. ‘Magic’s old hat, mate. I’m a comedian now.’
‘You must tell me some jokes some time,’ said Max, edging his way past Tony and towards the daylight.
Tony put out a hand to stop him. For the first time, his voice lost its exuberant edge, in fact now it sounded almost pleading.
‘Why don’t we get together after the show tonight, Max? Talk about old times.’
Max couldn’t think of anything he’d like less, but one thing was certain: he wasn’t going to suffer alone.
‘All right. We can ask Edgar too. Edgar Stephens. Did you know he was living in Brighton?’
Now Tony looked quite delighted. ‘No! Good old Ed. What’s he doing these days?’
‘He’s a policeman,’ said Max and, as he walked through the swing doors, he was still smiling at the look of sheer incredulity on Tony’s face.
So Tony Mulholland had reinvented himself as a comedian. That explained a lot. It explained why Tony could share the bill with him, it explained the Cockney accent and the sharp suit. It even explained the boxes at the stage door (AM for Anthony Mulholland). But it didn’t altogether explain why Tony was in Brighton in the first place.