Authors: Elly Griffiths
‘I don’t understand. Why would someone want to kill a bloody comedian?’
‘I don’t understand either, sir.’ Frank Hodges was glowering at Edgar as if the whole thing were his fault but, even so, Edgar found himself feeling sorry for his boss. Frank was a straightforward man: burglary, fights in dance halls, even the odd murder (a shooting, say, or a robbery gone wrong), he could cope with all that. But these killings – these elaborately staged
– it was all too much for him. He gazed at Edgar almost with entreaty; his moustache was wet where he had chewed the ends.
Averting his eyes from the facial hair, Edgar said, ‘At least we’ve got a few leads. Tony left a message at the station saying that he wanted to talk to me about the Magic Men. I think we should look at the possibility that this murder was linked to the girl in the trunk. That’s the link – the Magic Men.’
‘The Magic Men. Was that the damned silly war outfit
you were telling me about? The one with Max What’s-hisname?’
‘Max Mephisto. Yes. He’s appearing at the Theatre Royal this week. Tony Mulholland was on the bill too.’
Frank’s eyes bulged. ‘Well, then he’s our main suspect. Didn’t you say he was linked to the girl, too?’
‘Yes. She used to be his assistant. But Max has got an alibi for today.’
Edgar had left a message for Max at the Old Ship. When Max had called him back, he’d told him about Tony. He hadn’t tried to soften the story, just told him the facts. Max was tough; he could take it.
‘Jesus. Poor old Tony. What a way to die.’
‘Will you tell them at the theatre? I assume they’ll want to know.’
‘Yes. Yes, of course I will.’
‘Where were you at midday today?’
Max had laughed. ‘So now I’m suspect number one, am I? Well I was with Ruby all morning. We rehearsed from about ten to twelve, then we strolled down to the pier for a bite to eat.’
I saw you, Edgar wanted to say. I saw you strolling along as if you hadn’t a care in the world. Even now, he felt a sour jealousy at the memory.
‘Well, check his alibi,’ Frank Hodges was saying. ‘These showbiz types always stick together.’
They do stick together, thought Edgar, remembering the many times in Inverness when he had felt an outsider: the terminology, the in-jokes, the ‘do you remember old so-and-so’s’. But these chummy old memories could also conceal real resentments. Tony was hardly a likeable man, but who could possibly have hated him enough to kill him in such an awful way?
‘Has Stephenson looked at the body?’
‘Yes. I’ve just come from the mortuary.’
It was only three o’clock, but Edgar felt as if Tony had been dead for years. The discovery of the body, the screams of the landlady’s daughter, the frantic call to Bob, the wait for the undertaker’s van, more telephone calls, the terrible silence after he’d broken the news to Tony’s mother (‘Mrs Mulholland, are you still there?’), the moments when he remembered the look in Tony’s eyes – shocked, scared, accusing. It all seemed to have taken forever, but it was only mid-afternoon. Max would be on stage in a few hours. ‘The show must go on,’ he’d said, with only a trace of irony.
‘What about the girl? The landlady’s daughter?’ said Frank. ‘She must have seen something.’
But the girl, who rejoiced in the name Desdemona, had proved to be a poor witness. ‘She said she was listening to the wireless and didn’t hear anything. But she admitted that the front door wasn’t locked. Anyone could have just walked in and gone up to the room. There were two cups by the bed. Whoever it was, Tony drank tea with them.’
‘Must have been someone he knew.’
‘It’s possible.’ Tony hadn’t been afraid of his visitor, not at first. When had the fear started? When the assailant stood up? When he brandished the sword?
‘Have you sent the cups to the lab? The girl was drugged, wasn’t she?’
‘Yes. My bet is that they’ll find the same drug in one of the cups. Tony was a strong man. It wouldn’t have been easy to overcome him without drugging him first.’
‘What about the sword?’
‘Ornate. Looks like an antique. I’ll have my men going round the shops on Monday.’
‘This is Brighton. Bloody antique shops everywhere.’
Frank was a Londoner. In his view, the capital, den of vice though it undoubtedly was, was preferable to this shifty, seedy seaside place, full of actors and foreigners and men wearing perfume.
‘I’ll get on to it as soon as I can,’ Edgar said. ‘Pity it’s Sunday tomorrow.’
‘Have you spoken to Mulholland’s parents?’ asked Frank.
‘Yes. They’re on their way.’
Now that was an interview he wasn’t looking forward to.
Max was with Roy Coulter, the theatre manager, in his office. Roy was wearing a dinner jacket, ready for the night’s show. Eddie Bowen, the stage manager, was there too, more prosaically attired in overalls. It was an unwritten role of showbusiness: only the theatre manager gets to wear a bow tie.
‘We’ll announce it at the start,’ said Coulter. ‘Mulholland was on at the beginning of the second half, wasn’t he?’
‘Yes,’ said Max, ‘Just before Geronimo.’
‘I remember now,’ said Coulter. ‘He wanted to close the first half, but I wouldn’t have it. I don’t go much on comedians myself and I was right. Bloody awful act, I thought.’
Coulter stared gloomily at the playbill in front of him. He was a lugubrious man at the best of times and the gruesome murder of one of his acts hadn’t made him any more cheerful. On the other hand, he didn’t seem much more depressed than usual.
‘We’ll be short on time,’ he said. ‘Can you do a few more minutes, Max?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘I’m not asking Geronimo. He spends half his act picking up the clubs he’s dropped as it is. I’ll get the girls to do an extra spot.’
From what Max had seen of the chorus line, another performance from them didn’t seem designed to raise the general spirits. But Coulter was right about Geronimo: by the second house the clubs would be raining down on the unfortunate orchestra.
‘Who’ll make the announcement?’ he asked.
‘I’ll do it,’ said Coulter. ‘I don’t think we’ll have them asking for their money back. Mulholland wasn’t much of a name anymore. Good job it wasn’t you.’
‘Thank you,’ said Max politely.
Eddie Bowen spoke for the first time. ‘It’s an odd business, isn’t it? I mean, Mulholland could be a bit of a bastard,
but who would want to kill him? Did you say he was stabbed?’
‘Yes,’ said Max. Edgar had asked him not to share the details about the sword and the wardrobe, and he had been only too happy to comply. As it was, in an hour he’d have to go on stage and perform that trick.
‘Maybe it was a girl,’ said Coulter, ‘or a jealous husband. He had an eye for the ladies, Mulholland.’
‘If it’s a jealous husband,’ said Eddie, ‘Max should watch out.’
‘How’s your little assistant?’ asked Coulter. ‘How’s she taking the news?’
Max didn’t like the way that Coulter’s mind was working.
‘I haven’t told Ruby yet,’ he said.
Tony’s parents were a surprisingly small and timid couple. Edgar led them into the mortuary and they stood there, holding hands. Tony looked a lot better with his eyes shut and the undertakers had covered him with a sheet so you couldn’t see the stab wounds. The sheet was purple. Edgar supposed this was because it wouldn’t show the blood, but it gave Tony a surprisingly noble look, as if he were a Roman emperor lying in state.
‘It’s him,’ said Mrs Mulholland in a whisper. ‘That’s Anthony.’
The name struck at Edgar’s heart. Tony – brash, confident, America-loving Tony – would never have used his full name, but to his mother he was still Anthony.
‘Would you like some time alone with him?’ he asked.
The Mulhollands looked scared. ‘No thank you,’ said Tony’s father, as if Edgar had offered him a cup of tea. But, as Edgar was ushering them out, Mrs Mulholland suddenly turned and went back to the table where her son’s body lay. ‘Goodbye, Anthony.’ Her lips brushed his forehead. Her husband didn’t move from his position by the door, but he lifted his hand in a kind of farewell. Edgar led them out of the room.
In his office, he offered them drinks and tried to make things as easy as possible. He explained that he had known Tony in the war and that he would do his very best to bring his killer to justice. In the meantime, there were just a few questions he had to ask.
‘Anthony had a very important job in the war,’ said Mrs Mulholland. ‘He was with the Secret Service.’
‘I know,’ said Edgar, thinking, as he had thought at the time, that the Magic Men was the least secret secret mission that he had ever encountered. Everyone in Inverness knew all about them. Tony kept himself in free drinks – and worse – by telling the locals that he was part of a crack commando team.
‘When did you last see Tony?’ he asked.
‘Just before he came down to Brighton,’ said Mr Mulholland. ‘He didn’t really keep in touch much. We hadn’t seen him since he’d come back from America, but he called in that Saturday, all dressed up in a flash suit, box of chocolates for Mother, and told us that he was top of the bill in Brighton.’
Edgar wished Max could hear that. ‘Did you come to see the show?’ he asked.
‘No,’ said Tony’s mother. ‘We don’t go much on Variety.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Edgar, ‘but I have to ask. Did Tony have any enemies? Do you know of anyone who might have threatened him?’
‘No,’ said Mrs Mulholland, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief. ‘I mean, Anthony always rubbed people up the wrong way, but all the same …’
‘We didn’t expect anyone to murder him,’ finished her husband. ‘I mean, you don’t. Do you?’
Ruby took the news quite calmly. Max told her as soon as she arrived at the theatre. She was on her way to the dressing room that she shared with the chorus girls. Max stopped her on the stairs beside a giant model of Dick Whittington’s cat which had prowled across the theatre roof during the panto season.
‘Don’t say too much to the others,’ he said. ‘They’ll be told that Tony’s dead but not how he died.’
‘You haven’t told me how.’
‘Believe me, you’re better off not knowing.’
Ruth looked at him, her brown eyes round. Max had never told her about Ethel, but he was sure that she must have read about the gruesome Brighton Trunk Murders. She might even know about Ethel’s connection to Max. Word travelled fast backstage, and he was sure that the chorus girls would have filled her in on every detail of his past. But he couldn’t tell her that Tony had been murdered
in a gory approximation of the trick that he was about to perform on her.
‘How do you know?’ she asked.
‘Edgar told me. He found Tony’s body.’
‘Edgar? Oh, your policeman friend. Poor him.’
‘Yes,’ said Max. ‘Poor him.’
‘And poor Tony, of course.’
Max had tried to ensure that Ruby and Tony didn’t meet that often. He wasn’t sure why. Ruby didn’t seem to be particularly interested in any of the other acts on the bill, although she was friendly enough with the chorus girls. Perhaps it was just the memory of Tony’s face when he’d said that Ruby was ‘cute’. Tony had quite a reputation in the old days, and Max knew that nothing would please him more than to seduce Max’s little assistant from under his nose. He would assume, wrongly of course, that he had succeeded where Max had failed. But it wasn’t just that, it was the thought of Tony with his practised leer bending over Ruby’s hand and complimenting her on her stage presence … No. He couldn’t stand it. So he had never introduced Ruby to his one-time colleague. They had met once and, although Tony had been unctuously polite, Ruby remained pleasant but distant. She didn’t look sad now, though she had composed her features into an appropriately serious expression. She was young and nothing matters much when you’re young.
‘Anyway,’ he said, ‘don’t think about it tonight. It’s our last show. Let’s make it a good one.’ He found himself absent-mindedly patting the cat’s head.
‘Yes,’ said Ruby. ‘It’s our last night together.’
He wished she hadn’t put it quite like that.
Edgar arranged for a police car to drive Tony’s parents back to north London. They waited at the back entrance to Bartholomew Square, watching as the taxis weaved their way through the narrow streets up to the station. Edgar had offered to escort the Mulhollands to Tony’s lodgings, but they had refused, looking terrified again. Edgar had been relieved. He didn’t think he could stand looking at the splintered wardrobe again. He had told the Mulhollands how their son had died and had been relieved when they had received the news in stunned silence. ‘We think the killer drugged him first,’ Edgar had said. ‘He won’t have suffered.’ He had promised to send Tony’s belongings on to them.
It was still light, but the air was chilly. Mrs Mulholland pulled her scarf round her neck. It was an incongruously cheerful affair in red and pink silk. Edgar wondered if it had been a present from Tony.
He willed the car to arrive quickly. He couldn’t think of anything else to say to the bereaved couple and they, for their part, looked as if they might never utter a word again. But, just as the squad car rounded the corner, Mr Mulholland said, ‘Were you a friend of Anthony’s, Inspector Stephens?’
Edgar would never have described himself as Tony’s friend, even during the Inverness years. Tony had always looked down on him, had never lost an opportunity to
tease him or pour scorn on his army career, his respectability, his supposed cleverness. It had always been Max that Tony had wanted to impress and, consequently, Max whom he had wanted to surpass. He remembered Tony saying to Max, that evening at the French restaurant, ‘I’m a comedian and Edgar’s a policeman. But you’re still a magician.’ He remembered the exact look on Tony’s face as he said this. A sort of calculated malice.
‘Yes,’ he said to Tony’s father. ‘I was his friend.’
‘In that case,’ said Mr Mulholland, ‘we’d be grateful if you could come to his funeral. It wouldn’t seem right, just being the two of us there.’