Authors: Elly Griffiths
They had reached the Grand, where Edgar usually crossed the road. He hesitated, not wanting to end the walk, but Ruby said, ‘Are you crossing here? I’ll walk on a bit further.’
‘Goodbye then.’ Edgar went to raise his hat and realised that he wasn’t wearing one. ‘Good luck for the rest of the week.’
‘Thank you,’ said Ruby. ‘It’s not easy, being stabbed to death every night.’
Something in the way she said this made Edgar feel suddenly afraid. He wanted to tell her not to go back to the theatre, not to enter the cabinet and face the shining swords. But Ruby was smiling so he had to smile too, raise his non-existent hat and say that he hoped they’d meet again some day.
It was only as he was nearly back at the station when he remembered that, in the theatrical world, the words ‘good luck’ are considered extremely unlucky.
Edgar enjoyed the ferry crossing. It was a bright day, but the wind was strong. He stood on deck and felt the salt spray on his face, forgetting everything except the still surprising pleasure of being alive. After Jonathan died, he had assumed that he was next. Even when he was sent up to Scotland, to the sinecure that was the Magic Men, he had thought that a stray bullet would get him. An exploding top hat perhaps, or a man-eating rabbit. To have survived the war still seemed wrong somehow. Why should he be out in the sun and the wind when Jonathan and Charis were buried? Actually, he didn’t have a grave for either of them, which somehow made the whole thing harder to believe. Edgar gripped the deck rail and tried to forget the past.
Leading Fireman Williams had given him an address in Newport. Edgar was surprised to find that it was quite a big town. His view of the island was coloured by a long-ago school trip, and he remembered only stripy cliffs, a gift shop and a house that belonged to Queen Victoria. He
remembered trailing around the house and gardens with a lot of other bored schoolboys: rooms with high ceilings and glittering objects in glass cases, formal gardens and a fountain where Tomkins Minor took an impromptu bath. The place seemed frozen in the nineteenth century. Hadn’t Tennyson lived on the Isle of Wight too? He imagined them all drifting about, in their frock coats and crinolines, writing poetry to each other. So Newport, with its bustling high street, was a shock. There was even a policeman directing traffic around a statue of Queen Victoria (at least she was still in residence).
The Williams lived above a haberdashery. Edgar climbed the narrow stairs wondering about Ethel. He knew nothing about her, this woman he’d known only in death. Max had said that she was a star. Would a star have been happy, living above a shop in Newport High Street? And what about the man who’d lived there with her?
Michael Williams, a short belligerent-looking man with a high colour, was waiting for him in the spotless sitting room. He may have missed his wife, thought Edgar, but he’d obviously got someone else in to do the cleaning.
‘I’m sorry,’ Edgar began. ‘I know it must be difficult talking about Mrs Williams.’
Williams shrugged. ‘She left me, didn’t she?’
Edgar got out his notebook. ‘I wonder if you could tell me when she left? I’m trying to account for Mrs Williams’ movements up until the time of her death.’
‘Mrs Williams,’ said the fireman. ‘Can’t believe she was
still using my name. Wanted to forget all about me, that’s what she said.’
‘When did she say that?’
‘A year ago. It happened last summer. When
came to the island.’
‘Him,’ Williams glared at Edgar as if he were being deliberately obtuse. ‘Max Mephisto.’
‘Max came to visit Ethel?’ Edgar was shocked into first names, but Williams didn’t seem to notice. He was clearly being driven mad by Edgar’s stupidity.
‘No, of course not. Why would he come here? A man like that. No, he was appearing at the Pavilion on Sandown Pier. We went to see him. That’s what a fool I was. I didn’t know.’
‘What didn’t you know?’
‘About her and him. Oh, I knew she’d been in the theatre. I knew she’d been his assistant. I was prepared to overlook that. We’ve never had anyone showbusiness in the family. My family are chapel, very respectable. But Ethel was young. She would learn, my mum said. She’d learn to be a good wife.’
‘And did she?’
Williams snorted. ‘What do you think? She hadn’t the faintest idea about keeping the place nice. I did all that.’ He looked round the room complacently. ‘It’s a darn sight cleaner now than when she was here, I can tell you. But she was a pretty little thing. She didn’t have much of a childhood. Never knew her mum, her dad threw her
out when she was sixteen. I thought I’d give her a proper home.’ For the first time his voice softened.
‘How did you meet Ethel … Mrs Williams?’
‘I was on holiday, staying at a place just outside Brighton. Butlin’s Ocean Hotel. Ethel was the pro.’ He saw Edgar’s look of enquiry. ‘The professional dancer.’
‘She wasn’t working with Max Mephisto then?’
‘It was the summer. She was going to go back to do the Christmas season with him, but I got there first.’ There was a real sound of triumph in his voice. ‘I asked her to marry me and she said yes.’
‘How long had you been married when … when she left?’
‘Ten years.’ He gave a bitter laugh. ‘Ten years. Bloody tin anniversary, according to my mum. Things hadn’t been easy. There was the war. We were totally cut off here on the island. I wasn’t called up.’ He shot a look at Edgar. ‘Reserved occupation.’
‘Can’t be an easy job being a fireman.’
Williams seemed to relax slightly. ‘You can say that again. The things I’ve seen. I was in London in the Blitz.’
‘So Ethel was here on her own?’
‘Yes. My mum was always good to her, but I think Ethel was a bit lonely. Like I say, she wasn’t the domestic type.’
‘And after the war?’
‘We tried to start again. That wasn’t easy either. We wanted to start a family. When Ethel got pregnant, I really thought things were going to be better for us. Then she lost the baby.’
‘That must have been hard.’
Williams looked away. ‘Ethel was really cut up about it. That’s why I took her to the show on the pier. I thought it would cheer her up. That’s how much of a mug I was. There was no travel during the war, you see, so there were no shows on the island, just amateur stuff. When the restrictions were lifted, the big names started to come. I thought it’d be a treat for Eth. She kept in touch with him. Mephisto. She used to send him cards every Christmas. Put both our names on them, sweet as pie, but you have to ask yourself, why’s your wife sending cards to another man?’
Edgar thought that he’d better not answer this. Instead he said, ‘So you went to see Max Mephisto on Sandown Pier.’
‘Yes.’ Williams sat back and crossed his arms, looking more pugnacious than ever. ‘He was a fair magician, I’ll give him that. Very fair indeed. He did this trick where he put a girl into a box, just an ordinary cardboard box, then he stuck swords through it.’
Edgar thought of Ruby on the stage at the Theatre Royal. He was glad that Max had used a traditional cabinet and not a box. He didn’t think he could stand the thought that it was only cardboard that protected Ruby from the blades.
‘It upset Ethel,’ said Williams.
‘Seeing the swords go into the box? That upset her?’
‘No.’ Once again that jeering note. ‘It upset her to see another girl performing with Mephisto. She kept saying,
‘That used to be me. I used to be his girl.’ That’s what she actually said. “I used to be his girl.”’
Despite himself, Edgar felt sorry for the angry little man. He had tried to cheer up his discontented wife, only to have her hankering after the man on the stage. Williams had loved her, he thought. He hadn’t missed the significance of the ‘Eth’. He thought of Ethel, the glamorous showgirl imprisoned on the Victorian island, like a princess in a tower. What must it have been like for her, stuck on the Isle of Wight for the duration of the war with only her mother-in-law (who sounded a bit like Edgar’s own mother) for company? Then to lose a baby and, maybe, her last grasp at a happy marriage. What would have happened if Ethel hadn’t seen Max on stage and been reminded of her other life? Maybe she would have had another baby and settled down with Williams. It was impossible to tell. But Ethel had ended up in Brighton, the victim of a sadistic killer. Brighton was the place where she had met her husband. What had drawn her back there?
‘She left the next day,’ said Michael Williams. ‘Left a note saying that she was going back to the stage. Said she wanted to forget all about her life here.’
‘Did you hear from her again?’
‘No. Not till you telephoned to tell me she was … to tell me that you’d found her. I assumed she was with him.’
‘But there was something between them, wasn’t there? He paid for the headstone and everything. Why would he do that if he didn’t feel guilty?’
Max did feel guilty, thought Edgar. He knew that he was to blame, even if he didn’t know the details of it. He knew that Ethel had died because of her connection to him.
‘Max Mephisto isn’t a bad man,’ he said. ‘He didn’t even know that Ethel had left you. He was terribly upset when he found out that she was …’
‘That she was murdered,’ finished Williams grimly. ‘There you are again. People like us just don’t get murdered.’
‘Anyone can get murdered,’ said Edgar. ‘Believe me.’
Edgar thought about Ethel a lot over the next few days. The trip to the Isle of Wight, though illuminating in some ways, hadn’t really got him much further in the investigation. Ethel Townsend had met Michael Williams at Butlin’s Ocean Hotel in the summer of 1938. The next year war broke out, and Williams went to fight fires on the mainland. Ethel had stayed on the island in the company of her religious and disapproving mother-in-law. After the war, she and Williams had tried to ‘start again’. Ethel had got pregnant, but had lost the baby. In a doomed attempt to cheer her up, Williams had booked tickets to see Max Mephisto perform on the pier. The next day, Ethel had left him. A year later, she turned up in Brighton again, cut into three.
‘She never got in touch with me,’ said Max, when they met for a quick drink before the first house on Friday night. ‘I wonder why.’
‘We don’t know what she was doing between leaving Williams and answering that advertisement. We’ve
checked and there’s no record of her appearing in any shows.’
‘How long had she been in Brighton?’
‘Just a few weeks, her landlady said.’
‘And you’ve no idea where she was before?’
Edgar bristled slightly at Max’s tone. ‘It’s harder than you think to trace someone. We contacted her father in Margate, but he said he hadn’t seen her for years.’
‘No. They weren’t close.’
‘Her landlady thought she might have been up north somewhere. And there was that clipping from Manchester.’
‘You think she was there in the audience? Watching me?’
Edgar thought about how Max put this.
. Was that what he thought it was all about, Ethel watching him? Perhaps he thought that was what everyone in the audience was doing, watching him to the exclusion of everyone else. And he could be right at that. Certainly, Ethel had left her husband the day after seeing Max on stage. Had she spent the next year following him around the country? It was possible, but Edgar didn’t think that Ethel was in love with Max. Because, if so, wouldn’t she have contacted him before? She certainly would have contacted him once she had left her husband. No, the truth was more complicated than that.
‘The clipping was from November,’ he said. ‘She turned up in Brighton at the beginning of July. We’ve no idea what she was doing between those dates.’
Max sighed and drained his glass. ‘I’d better go. Are you coming to the show tonight? I could get you a comp.’
Edgar shook his head. ‘I’m exhausted. I’m going to head home.’
‘I don’t blame you. Life’s too short to watch Tony Mulholland trying to guess people’s star signs.’
As he walked home, Edgar wondered why he hadn’t accepted Max’s invitation. All he knew was that the last few days had given him a slight distaste for the theatre. Its lure had led Ethel to her death, that much was certain. Also, he felt obscurely irritated that Max was disappearing off to France in two days. There was nothing to stop Max going on holiday, but it just felt rather callous in the circumstances. It was all very well Max paying for a headstone and standing beside it looking sad for ten minutes, but, when all was said and done, it was business as usual. Another week, another town. Edgar had often felt, during his Magic Men days, that pros were the hardest-hearted creatures on earth and, now, here was more proof. Ethel was dead, but the show went on. Edgar had an uneasy suspicion that the only person to visit the grave on the hill would be DI Edgar Stephens. PC Muggins himself.
As for Tony, he certainly never expected to hear from him again. He and Max had poured him into his digs on Monday evening and Max reported (rather gleefully) that a vicious hangover had not improved his act. He wondered if Tony was regretting his return to the boards. Would he now fix his sights on America and television, the ultimate magic box? Edgar didn’t know. He doubted whether Tony
would bother keeping in touch with him. Max was one thing; Tony still courted his approval, wanted to surpass him. But Edgar, he was a nobody, a provincial policeman. He would probably appear in a future Tony Mulholland monologue as a creature of monumental stupidity, saying ‘well, well, well’ and bending his knees a lot.
So, all in all, he was surprised when, on Saturday morning, he was greeted by Bob with the news that a Tony Mulholland had called in. ‘He wants you to meet him at his digs at one-fifteen,’ said Bob, in the wooden voice he used for official messages. ‘He said that he wanted to talk to you about the Magic Men.’ Lapse into his normal voice. ‘Who are the Magic Men?’
The precision of the timing struck Edgar as odd. He knew from Max that pros are punctual to the second when in the theatre, but are otherwise casual about time. One-fifteen was a businessman’s appointment, the choice of a person so important that they measured their hours in quarters. He determined to be slightly, but pointedly, late.
Max spent Saturday lunchtime with Ruby. They had got into a routine of eating at a different restaurant every day, Max choosing places that he thought Ruby would appreciate, places off the tourist trail – or off the trail of the respectable secretary. They had eaten minestrone in subterranean Italian restaurants, sauerkraut and dumplings in Franz’s kitchen and cockles from a stall by the West Pier. But today, their last day, Ruby had said there
was only one thing she wanted to do. ‘Eat fish and chips on the Palace Pier.’ So that’s what they did, sitting in deck-chairs, Ruby in her neat green dress and Max in his best summer suit, taking care not to get grease on his trousers. Seagulls perched hopefully on the railing in front of them but, in Ruby’s case, they were unlucky. She ate every last mouthful, popping each chip carefully into her pink-lipsticked mouth and even moistening a finger to chase the last crumbs from yesterday’s
. When Max threw a piece of fish in the birds’ direction, she rebuked him. ‘I would have eaten that.’
‘Are you starving, Miss French?’
She smiled, folding the newspaper into a perfect square. ‘I have to keep my strength up, you know. It’s hard work having swords stuck into you every night.’
Max didn’t respond. He was looking out towards Newhaven and Seaford. In two days’ time he’d be on a ferry heading to France, the seagulls chasing in his wake. And, the way he was thinking, he might never come back.
He turned to Ruby. Her hat had blown off and she hadn’t put it back on. It was a sunny day, but the wind was strong. The sea was navy-blue with white-crested waves.
‘What will you do now?’ he asked.
She smiled. She had one slightly chipped front tooth. ‘Try to find another booking. I can’t see myself going back to typing and making tea.’
‘What do your parents think about that?’ Max was yet to meet these mythical beings. They had a house in
Hove, but Ruby didn’t live with them. She shared a flat with another girl. Max had never met her either. Now she shrugged. ‘I’m over eighteen.’
Ethel was thirty, he thought, but that didn’t stop her being murdered.
‘I’ll try to help you find work,’ he said, ‘but promise me one thing. Promise me you’ll never answer an advertisement in
She laughed, not really listening, and the wind blew her dark hair around her head.
‘Promise me,’ he said and his tone made her look at him in surprise.
‘All right,’ she said. ‘If it means that much to you.’
Edgar really was late by the time that he left the station. He had been held up by a woman who claimed to remember a sinister man carrying a black box into the station. The man, who was apparently small and dark, bought a bunch of flowers from the woman’s stall. Edgar promised to look out for a murderous flower-loving midget and set off for Tony’s lodgings at one-thirty.
He took the most direct route, along the seafront, but soon regretted this as the promenade was absolutely packed. It was a Saturday lunchtime in August and the world seemed to have come to Brighton for the day. Edgar pushed his way through the strolling, aimless bodies. He envied them. They knew nothing of murder or mutilation, these smiling, happy people. Families ate ice creams, lovers posed for photographs and an eccentric
with a billboard handed out leaflets prophesying the end of the world. As he forced his way through the crowds, Edgar found himself more and more in tune with the doomsayer: ‘The world will end in 1951. This is a FACT.’ He wondered why the man had fixed on 1951 instead of the neater 1950. It seemed oddly arbitrary, like Tony’s appointed meeting time. As he turned the corner by the Albion Hotel, another swarm of people seemed to be crossing the roundabout by the aquarium. The policemen directing the traffic had white helmets – a sure sign that it was summer – and they were having trouble clearing a space for cars. An open-top bus floundered amidst the sea of humanity. As Edgar watched, he saw a couple running across the road. They stood out, even amongst the throng. The man wore a cream-coloured suit – lighter and smarter than any other suit on the seafront – and the woman’s green dress fluttered against her legs. Max and Ruby, laughing, hand in hand. Edgar watched them until they passed under the archway welcoming visitors to the Palace Pier and were lost from view.
For a moment he forgot his appointment as he stared after them. Ruby and Max. They worked together, there was no reason on earth why they shouldn’t be sauntering along in the sun together. He thought of Ruby walking beside him talking about that woman magician who could levitate tables. How far would Ruby go to further her career? Polite and considerate, that was how she had described Max. He certainly looked more than polite now, holding her hand, smiling down at her. He remembered
what Max had said that evening with Tony:
She’s not a permanent fixture. Just for this week
. Like Ethel, like all the other girls. Edgar stood so long that the man with the billboard was able to walk right up to him and thrust a leaflet into his hand. The world will END. We are all going to DIE.
Edgar remembered Tony’s lodging house from Monday night. It was in a row of fisherman’s cottages leading up from the Steine. Tony might be destined for great things but, in terms of digs, he was still mid-way down the bill. The door was opened by a young girl – barely fifteen – who told him that Mr Mulholland’s room was upstairs. ‘Third on the left. But I don’t think he’s in. I haven’t seen him all day.’
She seemed to have no objection to Edgar’s climbing the stairs and opening Tony’s door, which wasn’t locked. The room was small, just a single bed, a desk and a large wardrobe. This last was remarkable only for the large sword which had been thrust through the wood.
Edgar and the girl stood in the doorway. As they watched, blood seeped through the wardrobe door and ran along the uneven floorboards until it formed what was almost a lake around their feet.