Authors: Elly Griffiths
The view from the cemetery was spectacular: gently rolling fields, a perfectly positioned windmill, the houses making a soft smudge in the valley. And the sea, the picture-postcard sea, encircling them, making the outskirts of Brighton feel like Amalfi or some Caribbean island. Max was pleased that Ethel would rest in such a lovely place, a location suited to her mysterious exoticism, so unexpected in a fishmonger’s daughter from Margate. It was less fitting though that her only mourners should be Edgar and Max. Max who hadn’t seen Ethel in twelve years and Edgar who never knew her at all.
It was Wednesday morning, halfway through the run at the Theatre Royal. In only a few days, thought Max, I can leave this place and never come back. I can leave England and never come back. He had forgotten that he identified with Brighton’s raffish glamour. Just at this moment, Brighton was the town where Ethel had died. And who would visit her grave, up here on the lonely hillside?
Max had paid for the headstone. ‘I haven’t the money to spare,’ said her husband, when Max had telephoned him. Nor the time, apparently. It was from the husband, though, that Max had obtained the bare biographical details inscribed on the stone.
Ethel Williams (née Townsend)
A Shining Star.
He had added the ‘née’ because he wanted to remember her before she had met Michael Williams and buried herself in the Isle of Wight. Why had she left Williams? Why had she ended up in Brighton, answering ‘Girl Wanted’ advertisements? If she was in trouble, why didn’t she come to him? She’d kept the cutting from Manchester, she must have known that he was still on the circuit. Maybe she thought that he had lost interest in her. That was what hurt most of all.
‘Maybe she was ashamed,’ said Edgar as they stood looking out over the sea. The entire service and burial had taken less than half an hour.
‘Ashamed of what?’
‘That her marriage failed, that she wasn’t a success. All sorts of things.’
‘She was only thirty,’ said Max. ‘What a waste.’
‘My age,’ said Edgar.
‘Thirty’s still young,’ said Max, lighting a cigarette. ‘Believe me, I’d kill to be thirty again.’
He wished he hadn’t put it quite like that, but Edgar didn’t seem to notice anything amiss. He was breathing in the hill-top air like a man who spent his life indoors. For his part, Max could never see what was so great about the countryside. Give him a London club any day, a whisky in his hand and the promise of a show in the evening. And mornings were overrated too. Like all pros, he was a creature of the night.
They walked back towards Max’s car, looking absurdly opulent beside the vicar’s rusty Morris.
‘Where to?’ asked Max, getting behind the wheel.
‘The station,’ said Edgar. ‘We’re following up possible sightings of the man who left the boxes at the station.’
‘Do you think you’ll find anything?’
‘No.’ Edgar sighed. He was fiddling with the window handle. Max wished he would stop. ‘Too much time has gone past. They can all remember a tall, short, thin, fat man who might or might not have had a German accent.’
They were passing the racecourse, two horses jogging along by the side of the road, their quarters swinging out as if they couldn’t bear the slow pace for a moment longer.
‘Ah, the old German accent,’ said Max. ‘Some things never change. What about the handwriting on the letter, the letter to the Post Office? The one signed Hugh D. Nee.’
‘It was typed. We can even track down the make of typewriter, but it doesn’t get us very far.’
‘Did Ethel have any visitors at her digs?’
‘No. The neighbours all said that she was a very respectable lady. Kept herself to herself. No gentleman callers.’
Max felt oddly relieved to hear this. Ethel may have fallen, but not into the abyss. Yet, if she had been a prostitute, maybe she would have had someone to protect her. Maybe it would have been better if she wasn’t respectable to the end.
‘What about the husband?’ he asked. ‘Does he have an alibi?’
‘He was the first person we thought of,’ said Edgar. ‘It’s usually the husband, that’s what my boss always says. But he’s got an alibi. He was on duty that day.’
‘Still a fireman then?’
‘Yes. Calls himself Leading Fireman Williams.’
‘Idiot,’ said Max. He had never met Williams, but this didn’t stop him from disliking him cordially. He disliked him even when all he knew of him was his name scrawled on Christmas cards.
‘I’m going to see him tomorrow,’ said Edgar. ‘See if he can tell me anything about Ethel’s last movements. He was pretty reluctant to meet me.’
‘So he might have something to hide.’
‘Maybe just doesn’t like talking about his private life. He seemed the taciturn type.’
‘They’re just the types that become murderers,’ said Max.
They drove down Bear Road, back into Brighton. There was another crematorium here and they stopped to let a hearse go by. ‘The dead centre of town,’ Bob Willis called it.
Max crossed himself, a gesture that suddenly made him look completely alien. He saw Edgar looking, and grimaced. ‘Catholic reflex.’
‘I didn’t think you believed in God.’
‘The question is,’ said Max, putting the car into gear, ‘does he believe in me?’
‘I’m sure he does,’ said Edgar. ‘Everyone believes in you.’
Max grinned, registering the irony. ‘Well, we did get good reviews last night.’
‘So the Brighton
believes in you. That’s something.’
‘It certainly is. Did you see what they said about Tony?’
‘I didn’t read it.’ Bob had shown him the review that morning, but for some reason Edgar didn’t want to admit this.
‘Mr Mulholland clearly believes himself to be psychic,’ quoted Max. ‘It’s a pity that he couldn’t have predicted the audience’s reaction at the Theatre Royal last night.’
‘Gosh. Do you think Tony saw that?’
‘Of course he did. All pros read their reviews, even if they say they don’t.’
As Edgar remembered, the paper had rhapsodised over Max’s ‘thrilling stage presence’ and his ‘effortless manipulation of the audience’. He felt sure that Max must have read the piece several times over.
‘What’s next?’ he asked. ‘Where are you going next week?’ He wondered what it was like, not having a real home, changing your backdrop every week, like stage scenery. To be honest, it sounded pretty damn enticing at the moment.
‘I’m going to take a holiday,’ said Max. ‘Go abroad for a few weeks.’
‘It’s all right for some.’
‘Come with me,’ said Max lightly. ‘See something of the world.’
‘I can’t,’ said Edgar. ‘I’ve got to make some progress on the case. According to my boss, no woman in Brighton can sleep safely until he’s caught.’
‘Oh, he won’t kill again,’ said Max, accelerating smoothly. ‘A trick like that, it’s a show-stopper. What an earth can he do for an encore?’
‘I don’t like to think,’ said Edgar.
Max dropped Edgar back at the station. After the air up on the race hill, descending the stairs to the CID offices felt like entering a tomb. Bob was sitting at Edgar’s desk, doing a crossword.
‘Haven’t you got anything better to do?’ asked Edgar.
‘It’s my lunch hour.’
Edgar itched to have a go at the crossword. It was only the quick version, but it seemed to be giving Bob some trouble. He was stuck on one down, ‘devil of a cut’, four letters.
‘I’m going to the Isle of Wight tomorrow,’ said Edgar. ‘Can you get someone to look up the ferry times for me?’
‘All right,’ said Bob.
‘Yes, sir,’ Edgar corrected him, but silently. Somehow people never seemed to call him sir.
He could see Bob wanted to ask him why he was going to the Isle of Wight. Was it just a day trip, or something to do with the case? The silent scrutiny was starting to get to him.
‘I’m going out,’ he said. ‘Get some fresh air.’
You’ve been out all morning, said Bob’s body language.
At the door, Edgar paused. ‘Nick,’ he said.
‘One down. Nick.’ And he made for the stairs.
Edgar walked briskly through the Lanes. Then he remembered that it was his lunch hour too and stopped at a Lyons Corner House for a roll and a cup of tea. The place was packed and he had to share his table with a holidaying family, complete with buckets, spades and quarrelsome mongrel. The children were arguing about whether they could go on the Volks Railway. ‘But you
…’ Edgar couldn’t remember arguing with his parents, though he supposed it must have happened. Lucy went in for occasional explosions and stompings upstairs, but he and Jonathan had been quieter, more secretive about their emotions. Anyway, theirs had not been a family that talked much about its feelings. He could barely remember any holidays, come to think of it. There had been a trip to a bed and breakfast in Weston-super-Mare, but his mother had been so worried about them ‘being in the way’ (they had to leave their rooms after breakfast and not return until supper-time), that this too had been an oddly furtive affair. Trips with Uncle Charlie had been more fun. He would have allowed them to go on the railway and eat candyfloss too. Edgar smiled apologetically at the family, removed his trouser leg from the dog and made his way out of the cafe.
He walked back along the seafront. He still couldn’t get
used to the daily miracle that was the sea, its rushings and rustlings, the white-topped breakers in the winter, the days when water and horizon merged into one. Today, the beach looked almost inviting, the tide out to reveal a thin band of sand. Children were paddling in the shallows and adults sat in deckchairs, trying not to notice the wind that sent the occasional newspaper flying into the air like a demented seagull. Edgar had been swimming once since coming to Brighton, an icy plunge from the breakwater. He had emerged almost paralysed with shock, wondering if he was going to have a heart attack. Was that what it had been like for Jonathan in Dunkirk? he wondered. Had the cold numbed the pain? He hoped so.
As he stood looking out over the scene, he was aware of a young woman standing near to him. Something in her pose, straight back, head tilted slightly, seemed familiar. He had actually started to walk away before he realised who she was. He backtracked.
She turned. She obviously didn’t recognise him, but she was smiling all the same. For some reason this struck him as incredibly endearing.
‘Ruby? We met on Monday after the show. I’m Edgar Stephens. Max’s friend.’
‘Oh yes,’ said Ruby, smiling more widely. ‘The policeman.’
That wasn’t quite how Edgar wanted to be remembered. PC Plod, eternal figure of fun. But he smiled and said yes, he was a policeman.
‘Max said that you’d served in the war together.’
Was it his imagination or did she blush when she said Max’s name?
‘That’s right. It seems a long time ago now.’
‘I can’t imagine Max in the army.’
‘He was exactly the same then as he is now.’
People said that actors were chameleons, all things to all men, but what always struck Edgar was their ability to remain unchanged whatever the circumstances. Put Max or Diablo in the desert or the jungle or adrift on the open sea and they would always remain exactly themselves.
‘Are you walking that way?’ said Ruby. ‘I’ll go with you.’
Edgar was surprised at the rush of pleasure that came over him at the thought of walking with Ruby. He hastened to fall in with this plan and was only slightly disappointed when, skipping along at his side, she proceeded to talk about Max.
‘Is it true that his father is a lord?’
‘Yes,’ said Edgar. He didn’t think that this could be a secret, it was common knowledge in the press after all (‘The Hon Max swaps stately home for a life on the boards’).
‘What does he think about Max being on the stage?’
‘I don’t think he’s too keen.’ Edgar had never met Max’s father, but from Max’s occasional comments he gathered that Lord Massingham was not a fan of showbusiness.
‘It’s funny,’ said Ruby, looking up at him in a way that made Edgar wish that they could change the subject. ‘Max isn’t what I expected. People in the business talk about him as if he’s some sort of dark genius, as if he’s Count Dracula or something. There are all these stories
going round. I was terrified at the thought of working with him. But he’s really nice, so polite and considerate.’
Polite and considerate. At least it didn’t sound as if she were in love with him.
‘How long have you been on the stage?’ he asked. He hadn’t missed the self-conscious pause before ‘in the business’.
Ruby laughed. ‘This is only my second job. I worked with a magician called The Great Raymondo before. He wasn’t that great, to be honest, but I’ve always been fascinated by magic. I used to do card tricks for my mum. I sent away for this conjuring set, exploding cigarettes, handkerchiefs tied together, that sort of thing. I’m sure I drove everyone mad.’
She said this with the breezy confidence of one who has been adored all her life.
‘So you want to be a magician.’
‘Yes.’ A defiant tilt to the head. ‘You probably think it’s impossible for a girl to be a magician.’
‘No, I …’
‘There was this woman called Eusapia Palladino in Italy at the end of the last century. She was married to a magician, but she became famous in her own right. She could levitate tables and play instruments without touching them.’
‘Amazing,’ said Edgar politely. He imagined that evenings at Eusapia’s house were a riot.
‘But she did all this mediumistic stuff. I wouldn’t do that. I’d concentrate on pure magic.’
Pure magic. It sounded both innocent and rather terrifying. Edgar imagined Ruby in the world described by Max; a different boarding house each week, changeover on Sunday, the endless round of dressing rooms and band calls.
‘It’s a tough life, being on stage,’ he said.
‘That’s what my mother says.’ Ruby was silent for a moment. She was so much smaller than him that he could look down on the top of her head. It made him feel protective.