Authors: Elly Griffiths
On stage at the Theatre Royal, Ruby flashed a smile up at the circle before disappearing behind the wardrobe door. Franz pointed to the percussion section and the drums began to roll. Max raised his sword in the air. Its blade gleamed dully in the footlights. One more performance, he thought, and then I can escape for two weeks. Two weeks of drinking Pernod and eating in seafront restaurants and talking to French girls with sly, dark eyes. He looked across at the audience and wondered what they would do if he just threw the sword down onto the boards and walked off stage.
The drums grew louder and louder.
Max plunged the sword into the cabinet.
Max met Edgar on Sunday morning at a cafe by the aquarium. At first sight, Max thought his friend looked dreadful. Edgar always had a rather rumpled look, but this morning he looked almost dishevelled: unshaven, tieless, sandy hair standing up in an uneven crest. Max watched him with a mixture of amusement and disapproval. He hadn’t slept that well himself – images of the sword cabinet kept scrolling through his head like one of those dioramas you get on the pier – but he prided himself on not having a hair out of place.
‘You look like hell,’ he said.
‘Thanks.’ Edgar ordered coffee and, as an afterthought, a bacon sandwich. ‘I feel like hell.’
‘You’ve had a tough time.’
‘Yes,’ Edgar took a gulp of tea and winced. ‘I saw Tony’s parents yesterday.’
‘I can’t imagine Tony having parents somehow.’
‘They were sweet. Sad. A nice old couple. His mum called him Anthony. I kept thinking of him as a child.
I mean, even Tony might have been quite nice as a child.’
‘I doubt it.’
‘I mean, nobody expects their child to grow up and be murdered by some madman with a sword.’
‘Is that who you think it was? Some madman?’
‘No.’ Edgar looked at Max across the table. Max was surprised to see that he suddenly looked quite formidable. ‘I don’t think it was a random madman. I think this has to do with the Magic Men.’
They were the only people in the cafe, but even so, Max looked round to see if they could be overheard. The owner was picking his teeth at the counter and a fat seagull stood on the window ledge outside.
‘I got a message from Tony yesterday,’ said Edgar, ‘asking me to meet him at his digs at one-fifteen. When I got there …’
Max watched as a greasy hunk of bread was placed in front of Edgar. Tomato sauce was leaking from the sides. ‘Another black coffee please,’ he asked faintly.
Edgar took a bite of his sandwich. He seemed lost in thought.
‘Did Tony say why he wanted to see you?’ said Max.
‘He said it was to do with the Magic Men. I didn’t see him myself. My sergeant took the message.’
‘Are you sure it was Tony who called in?’ Max was half-joking, but Edgar took the question seriously.
‘Description sounded like him. Thirties, dark hair, loud suit. He made a lewd remark to one of the policewomen.’
‘That does sound like Tony.’
‘But what did he want to talk about? And why one-fifteen? It’s such a weird time to choose. I keep thinking about it.’ Edgar ran a hand through his hair so it stood up even higher. Max wished he wouldn’t.
‘Why didn’t he come straight in and talk to you?’ asked Max. ‘Why make an appointment?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Edgar. ‘Maybe he wanted to make an occasion of it. You know what he was like.’
Max nodded. He understood all right. Set the stage, prepare the props. But who was orchestrating this particular trick?
‘What time did you get to his place?’
‘I was late. About one-thirty.’
‘But someone got there before you.’
‘Yes.’ Max looked out of the window. The seagull had flown and he had an unimpeded view over the dark-grey sea. The clouds were black on the horizon. This time tomorrow, he thought, I’ll be in France.
‘Anyone see who Tony’s visitor was?’ he asked. ‘What about the landlady?’
‘She was out. Her daughter was in charge, but she claimed not to have seen anyone. She’s not the sharpest tool in the box.’
Not as sharp as the sword that pierced the wardrobe door, thought Max. He remembered slicing though the apple on stage, Ruby’s slight expression of alarm, the audience’s intake of breath.
‘There was no sign of a struggle in the room,’ said
Edgar. ‘Bedclothes creased as if someone had sat on them, the chair pulled out beside the bed, two cups of tea on the table.’
‘So it looks as if he knew his killer?’
‘Yes. Or at least that he didn’t feel threatened by them. Until it was too late.’
‘Any other clues? In books the villain always leaves clues lying about the place.’
Edgar smiled. Max remembered that he used to be rather a fan of detective stories. Maybe that was what made him take the ludicrous step of becoming a policeman.
‘There’s the sword,’ said Edgar. ‘It looks quite distinctive. I’ll have my men go round the antique shops on Monday.’ He looked at Max. ‘By which time you’ll be on your way to France.’
‘Yes,’ said Max. ‘I must say, France is looking better by the second.’
‘When will you be back?’
‘In two weeks’ time. I’ve got a booking in Hastings for the first week of September.’
‘What about Ruby? Has she got another job to go to?’
Max had said goodbye to Ruby after the second house last night. It had been rather an awkward moment. Ruby never allowed him to walk her home to her digs. She said that it was because her flatmate went to bed early and she didn’t want to disturb her, but Max thought that maybe she just didn’t want him to see where she lived. So they had said goodbye under the portico at the Theatre Royal.
‘I hope we meet again,’ he’d said.
Ruby had smiled. Her hidden half-smile, instantly suppressed. ‘Maybe.’
‘Goodbye, Miss French.’ He had wanted to kiss her, but had kissed her hand instead. He wasn’t sure why he had hesitated. It wasn’t like him, but something seemed to stop him making the usual moves towards Ruby. Maybe it was just because she was so young.
‘Goodbye, Max,’ she’d said. He had walked away, leaving her standing there. He hadn’t looked round, but it had been a close thing.
‘I don’t know what she’s doing now,’ he said to Edgar.
‘I wonder if we should keep an eye on her, given what happened to Ethel. Do you have her address?’
Max looked up sharply, but Edgar’s face showed only kindly, professional concern.
‘I don’t have her address,’ he said.
Edgar pushed his plate away. ‘Do you fancy a walk?’ he said. ‘This place is depressing me.’
‘I think it’s going to rain,’ said Max.
They walked along the seafront. It was late morning and the promenade was almost deserted. The threatening clouds had descended even lower and the sky had a fractured, hazy look like a religious painting. Out at sea it was already raining.
‘We’re going to get soaked,’ said Max. He hadn’t brought an umbrella, but then he had his umbrellas professionally furled and rarely used them to keep off the rain.
‘Let’s head back towards the station.’
They crossed the road and started to make their way through the streets of Kemp Town. At Black Rock Gardens, the first fat drops of rain began to fall. Soon they were fighting their way through what felt like a tropical downpour. The bushes in the gardens were flattened by the onslaught and shop awnings bent and swayed under the weight of water.
‘Let’s get out of this,’ said Max, raising his voice to be heard.
‘In here,’ shouted Edgar.
Max shook the water out of his eyes but, even before he could see, he knew they were in a church. It was the smell. The heady scent of incense and candle wax. It was triggering a rare memory of his mother. A church, his mother holding his hand, someone bending over him, tweaking his cheek. The adult voices had a foreign, operatic quality. Were they talking Italian? Was this remembered church in Italy or just a gathering of Italians in England? Max had visited Italy several times as an adult but never, as far as he knew, as a child or with his mother. It wasn’t something he could ask his father.
‘There’s no service going on anyway,’ said Edgar.
‘Mass,’ said Max. ‘This is a Catholic church.’
‘How do you know?’
Max gestured towards the Lady altar, the statue of the virgin mother with arms held out, the banks of candles guttering in front of it. A nun was kneeling at the altar rails.
‘Mary,’ he said. ‘Lots of pictures of dead saints, holy
water, tabernacle on the high altar, light showing the sacrament is in residence. How much more evidence do you need?’ But he’d known immediately. He’d known by the smell.
‘Well let’s sit down for a moment,’ said Edgar. ‘It’s still pouring outside.’
They could hear the rain battering against the roof. There was a dripping sound too, water falling into some metal container. The roof, like all ecclesiastical roofs, obviously leaked.
‘Jesus,’ said Max, taking off his wet jacket. The nun glanced round disapprovingly.
‘It’s funny,’ said Edgar, ‘I can’t remember the last time I was in a church. A proper church like this. Not just a chapel at a crematorium.’
‘Nor can I,’ said Max. He wasn’t about to share his childhood memories with Edgar. Friendship only went so far.
‘Might have been some sort of remembrance service at the end of the war.’ Edgar seemed to be talking to himself.
There had been a service for Charis, but neither of them had attended. Edgar because he couldn’t bear to and Max for reasons of his own.
Edgar lapsed into silence, leaning forward as if he were praying. Max looked up at the ceiling which featured a fresco of God sitting in judgement, sheep on the right, goats on the left. Some of the goats had disturbingly human expressions. He wondered where he would go when the last trump sounded: into the Elysian Fields with
the sheep or into the fiery depths with the goats? Now that was quite some conjuring trick. He turned towards the Lady altar. Mary with her billowing cloak, arms outstretched. As a child, he had dimly associated Mary with his own, absent mother. He had even had his own little figurine of her which he had kept under his pillow until his father had found it and thrown it away. ‘None of that popish nonsense in my house.’ Max’s schools had certainly been chosen as much for their breezy secularism as for their academic achievements. As Max watched, the nun stood up, genuflected and crossed the church to exit by a door at the side of the altar. The stage door, he thought.
Edgar spoke, his voice oddly resonant even though he was almost whispering.
‘Tony’s father asked me to go to his funeral.’
Max said, still staring at the statue of Mary, ‘I can’t imagine that’ll be much fun.’
‘No. He said it wouldn’t be right if it was just the two of them. He wanted one of Tony’s friends to be there.’
Max said nothing. He had often imagined his own funeral: who would make speeches, which of his former girlfriends would cry and which would look merely expectant. Although, apart from the Bentley, he didn’t have much to leave.
‘Poor old Tony,’ he said. ‘He didn’t have much of a life really.’
‘No,’ said Edgar. ‘I don’t think he was very happy, for all his boasting.’
‘He was a good magician really,’ said Max. ‘All that mesmerism nonsense, it covered the fact that he was really observant. He knew how to work an audience.’
Never show surprise, Tony had said. Had he been surprised, he wondered, when he opened the door to his murderous visitor? He thought of Ethel, her easy charm, her ready laugh. Had she too sat down to drink tea with her killer?
‘Do you think the same person killed Tony and Ethel?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ said Edgar. He turned to look at Max. The rain had slicked down his hair and this had the effect of making him seem younger; guileless and innocent. ‘I do think it was the same person. And I think there’s a link to me. To us. The box was sent to me, to my army rank. Your assistant was murdered. And now someone who served with us has been killed in a way that mirrors one of your tricks. A trick you’re performing this week. It all comes back to us, to the Magic Men.’
The rain was still drumming on the ceiling. Drip, drip, drip. Backstage, the water fell into the bucket.
‘Well, said Max, ‘What’s our next move?’
‘You’re going abroad,’ said Edgar.
Max sighed. He thought of the beach and casinos at Le Touquet. Drip, drip, drip. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I know when I’m beaten. I’m staying here. You’ll never solve this thing without me. This guy’s a showman and I know about showmen.’
Edgar said nothing, but as he turned away, Max caught
his smile of satisfaction. That was the trouble with guileless people: they could be very cunning.
Edgar took a folded sheet of paper from his pocket. ‘We need to trace everyone connected to the Magic Men.’
‘That shouldn’t be too difficult. Most of them are dead.’
Edgar shook his head. ‘Bill’s in London, Major Gormley’s in Worthing.’
‘What about Diablo?’
Max looked up at the ceiling, at the sheep bound for the sunlit pastures and the goats heading for the fiery trapdoor.
‘Let’s start with the Major then.’
The Major always had an obsession with tidiness, remembered Edgar. During the war, his disparate band of soldiers, none of whom seemed capable of wearing a uniform correctly, had been a source of real pain to him. Now, looking at the lawns and flowerbeds that surrounded the Worthing bungalow, it seemed that perfect order had been achieved at last. Flowers stood in colour-coded ranks, pale blues merging into violet delphinium. Max and Edgar walked carefully over the close-cropped turf, so green as to be almost fluorescent.
‘Lot of rain this summer,’ said the Major laconically. ‘Good for the grass.’
Max smiled rather thinly. Edgar knew that he hated rain – and gardens too for that matter. In fact, he hated the countryside in general. Max said it was because he’d been sent away to school ‘in the middle of nowhere’, but Edgar thought it was more to do with an actor’s need of an audience. Hedges, trees and fields can’t applaud when a trick goes well.
The reason for the tour of the garden was that the Major’s wife (‘poor Elsie’) was in fragile health and shouldn’t be disturbed. But Edgar thought that it was also an attempt to diffuse the horror of the story by setting it in the context of the flowers and the rose bower and the butterflies flying in and out of the lavender.
‘Poor old Mulholland,’ said the Major, coming to a stop by a rustic seat. ‘Never had much time for him, but he didn’t deserve that.’
‘Before Tony died,’ said Edgar, ‘he said that he wanted to talk to me about the Magic Men. I wondered if he’d tried to contact you.’
The Major shook his head. ‘Haven’t heard from him in years. Haven’t heard from any of you. Got an invitation to Bill’s wedding a few years ago. After that, nothing.’
Edgar, who had also received an invitation (declined), said nothing. Max asked, ‘Who did Bill marry?’
‘Oh, some WAAF,’ said the Major dismissively. ‘They all looked the same to me.’
‘What about Diablo?’ asked Edgar.
‘Probably dead,’ said the Major, echoing Tony a few days earlier. ‘He must be over seventy by now. He was a wreck even when we knew him, the amount he drank.’
Edgar wondered how old the Major was. The old soldier was as upright as ever, but his hands had shaken when he’d made them tea earlier and now he sank on the bench as though standing were an effort.
Edgar sat next to him, but Max remained standing, frowning at an apple tree as if he expected it to attack him.
‘Has anyone else been asking about the Magic Men?’ asked Edgar. ‘Anyone at all?’
‘A few journalists over the years,’ said the Major. ‘Mostly asking about
.’ He gestured at Max. ‘Massingham.’
Edgar saw Max’s cheek muscle twitch. He remembered that Major Gormley always addressed Max by his birth name rather than his stage name.
‘Anyone recent?’ Edgar persisted.
The Major bent down to uproot a tiny sprig of clover. ‘There was a reporter. A woman. A
Edgar and Max exchanged glances.
‘When was this?’ asked Edgar.
‘A few weeks ago. During Wimbledon.’
‘Around the beginning of July?’
‘That’s right. She turned up at the house, don’t know how she got the address, asking all sorts of questions.’
‘What sort of thing?’
‘Oh, the usual thing. Magicians at war, all that rubbish. Lots of questions about Acting Major Massingham.’
‘It’s Max Mephisto,’ said Max.
The Major turned to look at him. ‘I heard you’d gone back to the stage,’ he said.
Max shrugged. ‘What else could I do?’
‘You could have stayed in the army. Colonel Cartwright thought the world of you.’
Max smiled, but said nothing.
The Major turned to Edgar. ‘And you’re a policeman. I couldn’t believe it when you telephoned. I was always sure that you’d go back to Oxford.’
‘This reporter,’ prompted Edgar. ‘Can you remember her name?’
‘No,’ said the Major. ‘Does it matter?’
They were all silent for a long minute. The bees were buzzing in the hollyhocks and there was a heavy, drowsy feeling to the air. It was the first really hot day of the summer. Then the Major spoke and his voice brought everything back: Inverness, the Caledonian Hotel, mornings so cold that there was ice on the inside of the windows.
‘There was a spy, you know. Amongst the Magic Men.’
Edgar stared at him. ‘What?’
‘There was a spy. Someone in the group was passing intelligence to the enemy. Cartwright and I were convinced of it.’
Max leant forward. ‘Do you know who it was?’
The Major gave a short laugh. ‘If anyone knows, it’s you.’
‘What did he mean by that?’ They were driving back in the Bentley. Even the sea looked better from such a luxurious viewpoint, thought Edgar. It sparkled like the Mediterranean itself. He wondered if Max was regretting his decision to stay in England.
Max shrugged, a gesture which seemed to involve taking both hands off the steering wheel. ‘Who knows? I never knew what the old fellow was going on about half the time.’
‘At Inverness he seemed to spend most of the time with his head in his hands, groaning.’
‘I didn’t go through the Boer War just to spend my life
babysitting a bunch of namby-pamby actors.’ Max imitated the Major’s parade ground rasp.
‘Do you remember when Diablo dressed up as a gypsy woman and offered to tell his fortune?’
‘No one is ever likely to forget the sight of Diablo in drag.’
Edgar watched as the pier, seaside villas and hotels slid past. Worthing gave way to Shoreham, grey and industrial. Once places like this had seemed frozen in time, untouched even by the war, but change was coming, even to pleasant seaside resorts. Theatre was giving way to cinema, the wireless to television, Variety to comedy. The Major was an old man and Tony was dead.
‘Do you think there was really a spy in the Magic Men?’ he asked.
Max shrugged again. The car swerved slightly. ‘I wouldn’t think it would be worth any spy’s time, hanging round with a group of magicians in a god-forsaken Scottish town.’
‘But Tony had something he wanted to tell me,’ Edgar argued. ‘Maybe it was about the spy.’
‘But why now? Five years after the war is over. I don’t think so. If anyone lived in the present, it was Tony.’
‘I don’t know. He got pretty nostalgic that night at dinner.’
‘He was just trying to get under your skin. Going on about Charis like that.’
Or yours, thought Edgar. As he remembered it, Max had been more disturbed than he was.
‘And there was that journalist asking questions about you,’ he said. ‘What was all that about?’
‘Journalists are always asking questions.’
That might be the case if you’re Max Mephisto, thought Edgar. Max might say that he was on the way out, but the great magician was still news. Fewer people, though, were interested in Acting Major Massingham. Why would a journalist be asking about Max’s war years?
‘I’m sure the Major wasted no time in telling her what a scoundrel I was,’ said Max. ‘How I spent the war drinking and womanising.’
‘Don’t forget playing poker.’
‘Yes. And playing poker. And performing the odd conjuring trick or two.’
Edgar said nothing. It was one of Max’s conjuring tricks that had killed Charis.