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Authors: Michael Gilbert

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He sat for a full five minutes in the darkened car and watched. No car crossed the end of the road. No one turned into it. Two or three householders coming home from work passed the car without a glance.

Mercer looked at the clock again. It was a few minutes before six. He got out quickly, and crossed the road. The legend above the door said, ‘M. Moxon. Newsagent and Tobacconist. Papers Delivered'. A burly man, dressed in a grey cardigan, who could well have been Mr. M. Moxon himself, was pulling down the blind over the window.

“You're just in time,” he said. “I was shutting up.”

“Better late than never,” said Mercer. He closed the door behind him. Then said, in quite a different tone of voice, “Got the doings?”

Mr. Moxon unlocked a drawer beside the till, and took out an envelope.

“Want to count it?” he said.

“I'll count it when I get home,” said Mercer. “If it's wrong, I'll come back and tell you all about it.”

Mr. Moxon grinned, exposing a broken front tooth. “I bet you would,” he said.

When Mercer got back to the station he found Rye waiting for him.

“The guv'nor wants to see you,” he said. “He's flying storm pennants.”

“What's eating him now?”

“Haven't you seen the evening papers?”

“No.”

“Then take a butcher's.”

It was on the front page. Maybe it wasn't as big, or as black, as a headline announcing the Outbreak of War or a General Strike, but it certainly hit the eye. It said, ‘Death Island'. Underneath was a photograph. It had the blurred edges and foreshortened effect of a picture taken with a telephoto lens, and it showed a line of caped policemen, digging. Partly by luck, partly by professional judgement, the photographer had produced a very effective composition.

“Good picture,” said Mercer.

“Try telling that to Bob Clark.”

“What's wrong? It shows his men doing some work for a change.”

“They were working all right. They took that island to pieces. But the point is, they didn't turn anything up. Barring a few rusty cans and pieces of old iron. So what now? That's what the Press of this country is clamouring to know. What were we looking for?”

Superintendent Clark said the same thing more forcibly. He was really angry this time.

“Look what you've let us in for,” he said. “Death Island! They'll be running coach trips to it soon.”

“It was just one of those things,” said Mercer. “I found out what happened. A couple of newspapermen were talking to Sowthistle. He showed them a spot on Easthaugh from which you can get a good view of Westhaugh. He used to stand there and watch the boys and girls having fun among the nettles on a summer night. Probably charged his customers to use it.”

“I'm not interested in Hedges. It's us I'm thinking about. You've made us look fools.”

“I wouldn't say that.”

“Well I'm saying it. You've mishandled this case from beginning to end.”

“Is that an official reprimand?”

“It's unofficial at the moment, but I'll make it official quickly enough if you don't pull your finger out. If you don't see the mess you've got into, it's time someone pointed out the facts to you. Everyone knew we thought the body we found was the Hedges' girl.”

“We never said so.”

“If we didn't think so, why did we question all her boyfriends? It was obvious. It's now equally obvious that we were wrong. Then we dig up the island. That means we still think she's dead, but we don't know where she is. Two girls missing. One we can't identify and the other we can't locate. I think it's time we had someone down from Central to show us how to do the job.”

“They may not oblige. They're not too keen on picking other people's chestnuts out of the fire for them.”

“I've already had Division asking for a report. And it didn't originate with them. It came down from District. What am I going to tell them?”

“Tell them the truth. That we turn up a two-year-old body, with very little identification. We think it may be a local girl who disappeared about that time. We were wrong. But we're still worried about her. Not only because she's disappeared, but because there's a murderer round these parts. And a man who's killed one girl and got away with it is twice as likely to do it again.”

Before Clark could say anything, the internal telephone on his desk rang. He seemed to be glad of the interruption. He listened for a moment. Then he said, “I've got Mercer here. I'll tell him. It's the Station Officer's desk. They've had a message from a Mrs. Hall. She's cashier at Weatherman's, the solicitor's. She thinks the body we dug up might be a Maureen Dyson, who worked there two years ago. If you got round there quickly, she says you could catch Mr. Weatherman before he goes.”

Chapter Eleven

“I have found Mrs. Hall to be a very sensible woman,” said Mr. Weatherman, “and a considerable asset to the firm. But I think, on this occasion, that she may have allowed her imagination to run away with her.”

“What makes you think that?”

“I see that I had some correspondence with Miss Dyson's parents at the time of her departure. They were worried as to what had happened to her. It is curious, is it not, Inspector, how parents continue to think of their children as helpless and irresponsible creatures, even when they are in their mid-twenties and quite old enough to look after themselves.”

“Very curious and very useful to us sometimes, sir. What happened next?”

“Oh, I made some enquiries. At her address here. It was a furnished flat. She seems to have packed her bags and walked out. She also left five weeks' rent owing. We paid it for her.”

“That was very kind of you.”

“I didn't regard it as a kindness. I regarded it as an investment. It was worth five weeks' rent, and a great deal more, not to have the name of this firm connected with fly-by-night tenants.”

“One way of looking at it, I suppose.”

“I also informed the police. It then came to light that one of them, who happened to know Miss Dyson by sight, had been coming back to Stoneferry and had seen her, on the other platform, with her bags, waiting for the train to London. I passed this information on to her parents, and I imagine they switched their enquiries to London.”

Mercer thought about it. It seemed odd, but not unbelievable. A girl who was still unmarried at twenty-five was an unpredictable creature. And he could imagine an employee finding Mr. Weatherman a difficult man to work for.

As if reading his thoughts, the lawyer said, with a dry smile, “She did not do a great deal of work for me personally. She was mainly employed in the litigation department, and did a certain amount for my partner, Mr. Slade.”

“Willoughby Slade?”

“Ah, you know him.”

“You can hardly live in Stoneferry without hearing his name. He is one of your celebrities.”

“Willoughby is an accomplished athlete,” agreed Mr. Weatherman. He seemed to be in no hurry to terminate the interview, and it crossed Mercer's mind to wonder why. Possibly he was waiting for a very late client.

He said, “What sort of girl was she?”

“Do you mean personally, Inspector? Or in her work?”

“Both.”

“She wasn't unpersonable, but she was not what I would call an attractive girl. At least, she did not attract me. She came from the Midlands, and had that hard uncompromising character you sometimes find in those parts.”

“Appearance?”

“It was two years ago, Inspector, and I am not very adept at describing girls. I should have said that she had a sallowish complexion and dark hair and was of normal sort of build and medium height.”

“And did you know that she wore different sized shoes?”

“She did not discuss her feet with me.”

Talking to Mr. Weatherman, Mercer thought, was like playing draughts. You moved a piece. He moved a piece. And all the time you had an uneasy feeling that he was one move ahead of you, and might even be planning to jump over two of your pieces and promote a queen.

“If you want any sidelights on her work or character, I would suggest that you have a word with my partner.”

“I'll do that,” said Mercer. He got up.

“Would you mind letting yourself out? The front door is still on the latch.”

Mercer was getting into his car when he heard the steps rapping sharply on the pavement, some way behind him. He turned his head to watch. There was a streetlamp opposite Mr. Weatherman's front door, and he was able to identify the solicitor's late visitor.

It was Rainey, the alcoholic cashier from Bull's Garage. He seemed to be in a hurry. Mercer engaged gear and drove slowly out, along the Chertsey road, thinking about this.

The Slade house was a surprise. It was little more than a villa, with an overworked patch of garden in front. As Mercer walked up the patch he readjusted his ideas. The father had been a regular soldier and was dead. The widow would have some of his pension and not much else. The son, as junior partner in a firm of solicitors, probably spent most of his money on himself. The daughter did nothing, and did it beautifully. It didn't add up to much. It was Venetia who opened the door. She said, “Hullo” in a neutral sort of voice. And then a second time, in a more interested way as if she thought she recognised him.

Mercer said, “I'm Detective Inspector Mercer from your local station.”

“Oh, God! Not parking again.”

“We leave that to the uniformed branch. Actually I came out to have a word with your brother. Mr. Weatherman suggested he'd be home by now.”

“He should be. But he isn't.” A moment's hesitation, and then, “Would you like to come in and wait?”

“When do you expect him back?”

“Any time between now and midnight. It depends how many friends he meets when he drops in for a quick one at The Angler's.”

“If I could wait for a few minutes.”

“Of course.” She led the way into the sitting room. Mercer's first impression of it was that it was too full of furniture and pictures, and that most of them had come from a better house.

“Mummy. This is Detective Inspector Mercer. He's looking for Willoughby.”

Mrs. Slade had neat grey hair, a firm brown face, and a voice trained to command. It was clear that she was uncertain whether Mercer belonged in the Officers' or the Sergeants' Mess.

She said, “If it's my son you want, you may have a long wait. Will you have a glass of beer?”

Sergeants' Mess, clearly.

“Thank you,” said Mercer, “but not just now.”

“It's very tiresome of Willoughby. I particularly wanted him home punctually tonight. I'm making a fish pie. It needs the most accurate timing, and it's almost spoiled already. We'll give him five minutes more, and then we start.”

This was over her shoulder as she departed for the kitchen. Venetia said, “Do take your coat off, and sit down. When mother says five minutes she means ten. And are you sure you won't have a drink. It doesn't have to be beer, we've got sherry. Or are you like those policemen on T.V. who say, ‘I don't drink on duty, sir.' “

“I drink on duty
and
off,” said Mercer. “It's just that I was afraid it was going to be bottled beer.”

“I don't like bottled beer,” agreed Venetia. “It blows me up like a balloon. Have some Cyprus sherry.” She went across to a cupboard in the corner and gave Mercer an opportunity of admiring her legs. She had been wearing jeans on the two previous occasions. As she swung round he hastily averted his eyes and pretended to look at one of the huge pictures which dominated the wall. It was worth looking at. It was a portrait of an officer – in the uniform of a by-gone age.

“That's my great-great-grandfather. Known in the Mutiny as ‘Mungo Slade'. I believe he was stupid even by Anglo- Indian standards.

“He really is extraordinarily like your brother.”

“Not very tactfully put.”

“The face I mean, of course.”

“Of course.”

They both laughed, and things were easier.

He said, “I saw you go overboard after your bracelet the other day?”

“Where were you? Oh, of course. You were one of the men on Death Island.”

Mercer shuddered. “Please don't call it that. The police don't like it.”

Mrs. Slade shouted from the kitchen, “Any sign of Willoughby yet?”

“Not a sign.”

“I also nearly ran you down.”

“That was you, was it? I noticed old Brattle sitting solemnly in the back of the boat.”

“It was my first time out. I got across. I also got very wet.”

“If you're going to try experiments with a punt, it's safer to try them below the weir.”

“It never occurred to me. If we'd been in any real danger I imagine Brattle would have taken over pretty quickly.”

“I nearly went over it once,” said Venetia. “I still dream about it sometimes.” She put one hand up, and brushed the lock of dark hair away from her eyes as if she was sweeping away a nightmare. “It was my own damned silly fault for taking a punt out with a pole but no paddles. I was about a hundred yards above the weir, and suddenly found there was no bottom. If I'd had an ounce of sense I'd have gone straight over the side and swum for the shore, but I thought I could save the boat, swinging the pole behind it, just like the gondoliers in Venice. Have some more sherry.”

“No thank you.”

“It isn't very nice, is it?”

“You can't stop a story in the middle like that. What happened?”

“All I succeeded in doing was to turn the punt sideways on. Not too far from the bank luckily. The sluices aren't very wide, so the boat simply got stuck. If it had been out in the middle of the river, I think the force of the water would have broken it in two. As it was it simply tilted it sideways. I stepped up onto the superstructure, and walked ashore. They winched the boat out afterwards with hardly a scratch on it.”

“As Brattle said, a well-made punt will stand up to a lot.”

“I even rescued the things that were in the boat—cushions and a shopping basket and things like that. They went over the weir, but all came safely to land on Westhaugh Island. The only thing I lost was a stone jar full of ginger beer. That's probably still swirling round at the foot of the weir—”

The light had gone out of Mercer's eyes, leaving them blank. Venetia broke off. It was as though blinds had been drawn shutting off the inside of his head.

“Have I said something I shouldn't?”

Mercer came back to the present with an effort. He said, “No. On the contrary. What you've just told me was—look here, it'll take much too long to explain. Can you teach me to punt?”

Venetia stared at him. Then she said, “I expect I could. It's not very difficult really.”

“Tomorrow afternoon.”

Venetia thought about this, too. Then she said, “I don't see why not.”

“I'll meet you at Brattle's boat-house. Four o'clock.”

Before she could change her mind, Mercer had jumped up and was making for the door. He said, “Tell your brother I'll call at the office tomorrow morning and have a word with him.” The next moment he was striding down the front path.

As he got into his own car, a smart little Mini-Cooper pulled up, and Willoughby Slade got out. Mercer made no move. He watched the boy disappear into the house. Then he started his own car, and drove off. Possibly he was being considerate to Mrs. Slade's fish pie.

He drove very slowly back to the station.

It was half-past eight when he got there.

“The phantoms are working overtime,” said Station Sergeant Rix to his deputy, Police Constable Lampier. Lampier said, “None of them spivs get up till nine, Sarge. They don't know what work is.”

Mercer found Gwilliam in the C.I.D. room. He was on night duty for the Division and had two telephones on the table in front of him, six packets of potato crisps and a bottle of non-alcoholic cider. He said, “What are you looking so bloody cheerful about? You look like a cat who's been at the cream.”

“Nothing special,” said Mercer. “Just a clear conscience and a good digestion.”

“If I didn't know you better, I'd say you'd picked up a bit of skirt.”

“You're wasted in the police,” said Mercer. “You ought to be in the crystal ball department. Do you remember anything about a girl called Maureen Dyson?”

Gwilliam disposed of a mouthful of crisps. Then he said, “Girl who walked out on old Weatherman. November two years ago. Yes?”

“Yes.”

“It didn't surprise anyone. He can't keep a secretary. He's a gorgon. He turns them into stone.”

“The idea now is that the body we turned up might have been her.”

Gwilliam pondered this through a further crackling mouthful. Then he said, “That can't be right. She was seen going up to London. Why would she come back here and be buried?”

“Who saw her?”

“It was two years.”

“Would it be in any report?”

“I don't think anyone was asked for a report. Not an official report like. It wasn't a police matter. Not then.”

“It would have been in the Occurrence Book.”

“It should have been.”

“Where are the ‘O' books kept?”

“They'd be downstairs. The boys in blue look after them.”

Station Sergeant Rix, on being appealed to, said that he thought the old ‘O' books would be in a cupboard in the interview room. He produced a ring of keys and they went along together. The cupboard was unlocked, and a gap in the row of thick, leatherbound books showed that the volume covering the October and November of two years earlier was missing.

“Now who'd have had that out?” said Rix.

“I can guess,” said Mercer.

He went upstairs to Superintendent Clark's room. The book was lying on a side table. There was a slip of paper marking the date November 14th. He took it back with him to the C.I.D. room.

The page was full of the usual trivialities. P.C. Dring, on beat duty along the towpath, had noted that the couple who had been using the green caravan, unlawfully parked at the north side of the caravan site, had deserted it, and had apparently left the door unlocked. P.C. Philpott had heard the Alsatian in ‘Dunroamin' howling its head off for the second day running and had tried the doors of the bungalow but found them all locked. Note. Tell R.S.P.C.A. Detective Prothero had observed an old lady having an epileptic fit on a seat in Torrance Park Recreation Ground and had arranged for her transport to out-patients. At the foot of the page, in a round, boyish handwriting, was the entry he was looking for. Detective Sergeant Rollo, returning from a visit to London to give evidence at the South London Quarter Sessions, had observed Maureen Dyson, known to him as a typist working for Messrs. Weatherman's, standing on the up-platform, evidently waiting for the seven-fifteen train to Waterloo. There were two large suitcases on the platform, one on either side of her. He had been surprised because he had been talking to her two days before, and she had not said anything about leaving.

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