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Authors: Michael Gilbert

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“With sticks or spikes. And a couple of scythes. They're to clear the island first. Then walk up and down it prodding.”

“I take it you'll be there? You can give them their instructions.”

“At my last station,” said Mercer, “if a plain-clothes man gave a man in uniform a suggestion, let alone an instruction, all he got was a dirty look.”

The Superintendent said, “You'll find that discipline is better here.”

The opening moves in a murder investigation have been as carefully thought out and are as stereotyped as the Sicilian defence in chess. At nine o'clock that evening, as the light was beginning to go, Mercer sat in the C.I.D. room wondering what he had forgotten.

Area sealed off. Coroner's office alerted. Statement for the Press, cleared on the telephone with the Press Office at Scotland Yard. Copies of the pathologist's report to the coroner and to Division. Two sets of photographs from the scene of the crime and one from the mortuary. Provisional description circulated to Missing Persons. Arrangements made for custody of the body.

What had he left out? The Forensic Science Laboratory. But he had absolutely nothing to send them. Not a hair, not a stain, not a scrap of tissue or rag of clothing. Just a parcel of bones, picked clean by the industrious ants, scoured by sand and water. All the same, they should have a copy of the pathologist's report; and since he had been given freedom of choice, it should go to Guy's, who had given him much friendly assistance when he was in Southwark.

Tom Rye and Gwilliam came in. They were carrying a wicker basket between them, and dumped it on the table.

“One island, contents of,” said Rye. “Five hundred fascinating relics. Would you like to list them now, or shall we do it tomorrow?”

“Anything interesting?”

“It depends what you call interesting. How many French letters did we find?”

“Twenty-five,” said Gwilliam.

“I don't believe it,” said Mercer. “There isn't a square foot of that island that's level, and most of it's covered with nettles.”

“The youth of Stoneferry are a hardy lot,” said Rye. He started to extract articles from the basket. “One sardine tin, recent, with remnants of fish still adhering. One shoe, decrepit—”

Mercer got up abruptly. He said, “That girl's been there for a year or more. Another twelve hours won't make any difference. Let's knock off. I need a drink. What's the best place round here for picking up form?”

Tom Rye considered. He said, “There's The Chough, over there on the other side of the Square, but that's really a lunch-time pub. At this time of night your best bet would be The Angler's Rest. Signboard, a gent holding his arms wide apart. Locally known as The Tall Story. Down the steps by the war memorial, along the towpath, and it's on your left just before you come to the railway bridge.”

The Angler's Rest was an old, dark place. It smelled of stale beer, varnish, and what might have been fish but was probably dry-rot. It had uneven brick floors, yellowing ceilings, and walls covered with cases containing glassy-eyed pike and barbel, who glared down at the drinkers, like the oldest members of the club disapproving of the rising generation.

When Mercer went into the saloon bar he attracted as much, and as little, attention as any stranger does when he goes into a pub. That is to say nobody looked at him, and everyone wondered who he was. He ordered a pint of bitter, and retired to an uncomfortable oak settee in the corner. The beer was all right. It was a good brand, and had been carefully looked after.

About ten minutes later an inner door opened, and a barrel of a man with a sun-reddened face and close-cropped hair came out and rolled across to the bar. He ordered a light ale, a brandy and ginger ale and two Scotch-and-sodas. As he paid for them, Mercer noticed that he only had one arm.

The barman said, “All right, Mr. Bull. I'll bring them in for you,” and his eyes flickered very briefly in Mercer's direction. The newcomer moved over and perched on the arm of the settee beside Mercer. He said, “You the new skipper?”

“The local intelligence system must be very good.”

“We all knew Watkyn was going, poor old sod. Soon as we saw you in a car with Tom Rye we had a good guess. My name's Bull—Jack Bull. That's my garage in the High Street. I used to look after Watkyn's car for him. Do the same for you if you like.”

“When I get one.”

“You looking for one?”

“About two years old,” said Mercer. “Guaranteed to stand up to hard use. And must have a big boot.”

“To bring bodies back in?”

Mercer looked up, studied Bull for a few moments, and then said, “That's right. Bodies, and other things. Does everybody know all about that, too?”

“There's a bit in the
Standard
.”

Bull handed him the folded paper which was sticking out of his right-hand jacket pocket. It occurred to Mercer that people with only one arm must quickly get into the habit of arranging things like that. It was only a short paragraph, mentioning that two boys had discovered a body whilst bathing. There were no names or details. Presumably the real story would be in the
Mirror
in the morning.

The landlord came past with the four drinks on a tray. Bull said, “Why don't you join us? It's quieter in the small bar. Put a pint of bitter with these, Bob.”

The small bar was just large enough to hold two tables and six chairs. Three of them were occupied. A small, monkeylike man who was addressed as Johnno was given one of the glasses of Scotch. The brandy and ginger ale went to a grey-faced character wearing heavy horn-rimmed glasses, with untidy hair and untidy clothes, whose hand trembled very slightly as he picked up the drink.

The light ale was for the girl. She had a head of blonde hair which could have been natural, blue and green shadow over the eyes and an impertinent nose. Mercer was not in the least surprised to be told that her name was Vikki. She looked every inch a Vikki, down to her last pink-tinted toe-nail.

“What you see in front of you,” said Bull, “is what you might call the brains of my establishment. The brawn is off drinking beer and playing darts somewhere else. Johnno looks after petrol sales, and tries not to swindle the customers too noticeably. Mr. Rainey looks after our accounts, and Vikki looks after me.”

“You haven't introduced your friend,” said Vikki.

“Detective Chief Inspector—?”

“Bill Mercer.”

“You do pick up the oddest people,” said Vikki.

The smile that went with it just prevented the words from being rude.

“You mind your manners, Vikki,” said Johnno. “He looks as though he could eat you for dinner, and two more like you.”

“I'm sure I hope he'd enjoy the taste,” said Vikki. Her light blue eyes were weighing and measuring him.

“I'll tell you what,” said Mercer. “They'll be throwing us out soon. Why don't I order another round whilst the going's good?”

Johnno said, “Bob won't throw us out. Not whilst we've got the law here.” No one resisted the idea of another round, least of all Mr. Rainey, who had already got outside his brandy and ginger ale. With the arrival of the new drinks the atmosphere warmed up. Jack Bull said, “You'll enjoy Stoneferry. Some people call it Sinferry. So many men living with other people's wives. Or little bits of fluff tucked away in bungalows down the river.”

“You're a fine one to talk,” said Vikki.

“I'm a bachelor,” said Bull. “I can please myself. It's these married men who make me laugh. Come sneaking down here on the midday train on Saturday, with lust in their eyes, and crawl back to their wives on Sunday evening, telling them what a tiring time they've had at the rep's conference at Birmingham. What
they
don't know is that their wives have already rung up the area manager, just to check that there
isn't
a conference at Birmingham, and tooled off down to Brighton with their boyfriend from up the road. I suppose it's one way of staying happily married.”

“I think you men are horrible,” said Vikki.

Two drinks later Mr. Rainey got up and drifted off. He hadn't opened his mouth except to say “Cheers” each time a drink was put into his hand.

“Suffers from ulcers,” said Bull.

“I thought if you had ulcers you weren't supposed to drink,” said Vikki.

“You think too much,” said Bull.

Mercer said, “There's only one thing wrong with your petrol station that I could see. It's in the wrong place. Bang in the middle of the High Street. If we'd wanted to stop for a refill this morning we'd have caused a traffic block just trying to turn in.”

“That's because it was market day. Other days it's not so bad.”

“Not so long ago,” said Johnno, “there were
three
bloody great garages in the High Street.”

“It's time you ordered a drink,” said Bull.

Whilst he was out of the room, Mercer nodded at the flap of sleeve stuck into Bull's left pocket and said, “War?”

“Arnhem. And that was a bloody shambles, if you like.”

“So I'd heard.
Not
one of our brighter bits of planning.”

“If some of those characters in scarlet hats who were running the war had been put in charge of a launderette they'd have been bankrupt inside the year.”

“Well!” said Vikki. “That wasn't what you told me.”

“About what?”

“About how you lost your arm. You said you ran off with a Frenchman's wife, and he challenged you to a duel, and cut it off with his sword.”

They were still laughing when Johnno came back with the drinks.

“Bob says this definitely is the last round.”

“That means we shan't get more than two more,” said Bull.

“Not tonight,” said Mercer. “Can't break the law on my first night.”

As he walked home, along the towpath, he was wondering about them. Rainey was clearly an alcoholic. Not a very safe man to have keeping your accounts. Johnno was sharp. He had the look and build of a jockey. Mercer thought that he would enjoy swindling his enemies but would probably be loyal to his friends. Bull was in a different class altogether. A capable dangerous man. Someone you might find yourself liking very much though.

But it wasn't the men themselves that he was really thinking about. Mercer was a man whose trade had taught him to be interested in small things. It was the moment when Johnno had said, “Not so long ago there were
three
garages.” When he said it, Mercer had been admiring the nine-pound trout in the glass case over the fireplace. And, mirrored in that glass, he had seen, so fleetingly that it might have been his imagination, only he knew that it wasn't, the look which Bull had given his subordinate. It was a look which said, in clear black print, “Shut your mouth, you bloody fool.”
And
he had packed him off to order a round of drinks before he could say any more.

Mercer stowed it away in the ragbag of odds and ends, pieces of information and impressions which he had picked up in his first twenty-four hours at Stoneferry.

Somewhere below him, in the dimness, a punt was moored to a landing stage. Mercer could see the two figures, a man and a girl, stretched full length on the cushions. He heard the girl laugh. He wished he was down in the boat with a girl who could laugh like that, instead of going home to a bed like a rockery, in Cray Avenue.

Chapter Three

Mercer bought his copy of the
Daily Mirror
on his way to the station. It was the second lead story on the back page. There was the usual efficient spread. A picture of Michael, grinning all over his face, and next to it one of his father, looking angry. The second picture had actually been taken several months earlier, but the juxtaposition was effective. There was a shot of the island taken with a good telephoto lens from the opposite bank of the river. It didn't show much, because screens had been put up round the excavation. The story was based on some pretty thorough footwork. It was clear, that, among other people, the reporter had talked to Dr. Champion.

Tom Rye and Prothero were busy spreading the contents of the basket onto two trestle tables.

“It's a funny thing,” said Rye. “Do you know we've found three shoes, and they're all right foot. You could build up quite a theory on that. The murderer with no left foot.”

Mercer inspected the flotsam and jetsam. He said, “That red plastic handbag. That was an odd thing to dump.”

“Odder still,” said Rye. “It wasn't empty. I put the stuff out of it over there.”

“If a girl left her handbag behind you'd think she'd take the trouble to come back and look for it. It wouldn't be hard to spot that colour. Where was it?”

“In the opening of an old water-rat burrow,” said Prothero. “It might have dropped there, or it might have been dropped somewhere else, floated downstream and been washed into it.”

Mercer was trying to separate the contents, which had rusted together into a lump. There were two or three coins, a small bunch of keys, what might have been a lipstick container, and what was clearly a powder compact. Mercer got out a pen-knife and, after a bit of fiddling, succeeded in opening it.

The air-tight lid had preserved the contents surprisingly well.

“Sun-tan dusting powder,” said Rye, who was a married man.

“There's a shopman's mark scratched inside the lid,” said Mercer. “Bit of luck if it was bought locally. We should be able to identify it.”

“We might,” said Rye, “but what I was thinking was, if this girl came from London or somewhere down for the day for a picnic, and it wasn't till she got home she found she'd lost her bag she might let it go but if it belonged to a local girl, when she found she'd lost it, why didn't she go back and look for it?”

“Perhaps she wasn't in any position to go back and look for anything.”

“Ah,” said Rye. “You mean it might belong to the girl we found?”

“It's possible, isn't it. The murderer strips her, and takes the clothes away with him. But he doesn't notice the bag. It's slipped down into this hole.”

“Could be,” said Rye. “Try it round the jewellers and fancy goods shops, Len. You can leave the rest of the junk for now.”

Mercer said, “I suppose I ought to be getting down to the island to see how they're getting on.” He made no immediate attempt to move, but sat on the edge of the table watching Rye trying to disentangle a sodden lump of newspaper which had apparently been used to wrap up the remains of a meal. He said, “Is it right there used to be three garages in the High Street?”

“That's right.”

“What happened to the other two?”

“One of them was shut some time ago. A couple of years before I came here. Run by a man called Mike Murray. He was a naughty boy.”

“How naughty?”

“They found a hot car in his yard and another one in his garage. He couldn't think
how
they got there.”

Mercer laughed. “What about the other?”

“That was what you might call an entanglement with the law too. The other sort of law. They took on a repair job, on the brakes of a doctor's car, and did it so bloody badly that the brakes failed and the car hit a woman with a pram. Didn't actually kill either of them but hurt them both pretty badly.”

“Claim for damages?”

“That's right. Particularly when it came out that the job had been done by a temporary mechanic, probably unqualified, who'd scarpered.”

“And that was the end of the garage.”

“That's right. Like all those little places there wasn't much in the way of capital behind them. The costs and damages finished them. To say nothing of the fact that no one was going to be very happy entrusting their car repairs to a place which made such a mess of them.”

When Mercer made no comment, Rye said, “So what's it all about? Are you thinking of starting a garage yourself? I'd say there was room for another one.”

Mercer smiled. It was a curious secretive smile which suggested that he was amused more by his own thoughts than by what he had heard.

“I might do that,” he said. “Mr. Bull struck me as a sound sort of businessman. If he offered me a partnership I might consider putting some capital into it.”

Rye looked at him to see if he was joking and then said, “When did you meet him?”

“Last night, at that pub. With his pump man he calls Johnno—”

“Johnny Johnson. Looks like a jockey.”

“Right. And his accountant, who looks like a dipso, and his secretary who looks like every middle-aged executive's dream secretary. Incidentally, who
was
the second man?”

It took Rye a moment to work out what Mercer was talking about. Then he said, “You mean the second garage that went bust?”

“Correct.”

“It called itself the Stoneferry Central Garage. It was run by a man called—hold it—Church—Bishop—Prior. That's right. Henry Prior.”

“Where is he now?”

“I've no idea. Weatherman's would tell you. They acted for him.”

“Weatherman's?”

“Solicitors. Far end of Fore Street. Second on your left as you go up the High Street. What's this all about anyway?”

“Do you ever stay awake at nights worrying about names you can't remember?”

“Funny you should say that. Only last night, just as we were going to sleep, my wife said to me, ‘Who was it gave us those beer mugs as a wedding present? Name beginning with “B”.' We both knew perfectly well, but we couldn't put our tongues to it. We were at it for hours—”

“Well I'm like that about things,” said Mercer. “If some little thing crops up that I can't understand, I have to worry away at it until I
do
understand it. Forty-nine times out of fifty, it turns out to be nothing at all. Sometimes fifty out of fifty.” He got off the table and made for the door.

“The old man was asking for you,” said Rye.

“What does he want?”

“He's been reading the
Mirror
too.”

“Tell him I'm on the job,” said Mercer. “No time for idle gossip.”

“It was Woods, actually.”

“Who was?”

“The people who gave us the beer mugs.”

Mercer found a crowd at the end of the path leading to the island, and a bored-looking policeman standing at the entrance to it.

“There's another lot down the other end,” said the policeman. “I couldn't stop 'em. They came along the river bank. Christ knows what they think they're going to see.”

The crowd on the river bank was mostly boys. They were gazing hopefully at the barricade of canvas screens. The island looked strangely different. It looked naked. The nettles had been scythed, thorn bushes and scrub alder pulled out, and the shingle raked over. Mercer pushed his way through the crowd, crossed the plank bridge, and found Sergeant Gwilliam and Detective Massey at work in their shirtsleeves behind the screen.

“We've gone down two foot below where the body was lying,” said Gwilliam. “Can't go any further, the water's coming in. We shan't find anything else now.”

There was a crowd on the other bank, too. And a number of boats were dawdling past so that the people in them could stare. One of them was a punt handled by a girl. She was clearly adept at that ancient and difficult method of propulsion. She was wearing a pair of faded blue jeans and an open-necked, short-sleeved, dark blue cellular vest. Her head and her feet were bare. Her hair was drawn back into a short plait which somehow failed to look schoolgirlish. Her only ornament was a gold bracelet on one sun-browned wrist, which glinted in the sun as she dropped the pole, expertly close to the side of the punt, and leaned her weight against it.

“Eyes front, Skipper,” said Gwilliam. “You're looking at the local aristocracy.”

“And boy, is she worth looking at,” breathed Mercer. “Who is she?”

“She's the daughter of the late Lieutenant-General Sir Somebody—Something. They've got the house on the Chertsey Road, over the old bridge.”

“I don't believe she's wearing anything under that vest. Look, when she bends forward to put the pole in—there—see what I mean.”

Gwilliam grinned, and was about to say something when it all happened very quickly. The wash of a passing launch caught the punt and rocked it. The girl had her feet braced against the sides and was in no danger, but as she let go of the pole with her right hand the bracelet slipped off and dropped into the water. In what seemed to be a single movement the girl had shipped the punt pole and dropped into the water. Mercer took a step towards the bank. Gwilliam said, “I wouldn't bother, skipper. She can swim a lot better than you or me.” A dark head reappeared. The girl made her way quickly to the punt, and pulled herself in over the end with one economical heave. Mercer saw that she had recovered the bracelet. Then she turned the head of the boat, and started to move off downstream. The wet vest was clinging to her exciting body, and the water was running in streams from the hair plastered to her head. She seemed unconcerned about her appearance.

“They're a real pair of water babies, her and her brother,” said Gwilliam. “Brought up in and on the river. Win all the prizes at the local regatta.”

Mercer, who was still staring at the boat as it disappeared downstream, said nothing. He was wondering if she was the girl he had heard laughing as he walked home the night before. He thought it was unlikely. If what Gwilliam had said was true, she was probably an inhibited upper-class dolly. All the same, it would be fun to find out.

“All right,” he said. “We'll pack it up here. You can shift those screens. We'll let the public in.”

When they left, the public was standing, three deep, round the excavation. One small girl had already fallen into it.

“We might be onto something with that powder compact,” said Rye. “It came from Benson's. It's a stationer's shop really. They stock a few fancy goods for the summer trade. Benson remembers the compacts, they were a bit more pricey than his usual line of stuff, and he was afraid he wasn't going to get rid of them. There were only six all told. He's busy turning up his records and trying to remember who bought them.”

“Good,” said Mercer. “What's the name of the local paper?”

“The
Stoneferry Times and Gazette.
In South Street. Very sound for local digs, if that's what you're thinking of.”

“That's what I was thinking of,” agreed Mercer.

The
Gazette
was a weekly paper. Its back numbers department produced copies of that year's production. It was in the number which had come out in the last week of July that Mercer found an account of the Stoneferry Annual Regatta and Water Sports. The sun had shone throughout the day (“a change from the year before,” said the
Gazette
); and a large and appreciative crowd had watched the traditional aquatic contests and races, followed by a display of Life Saving by the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides. Which had saved which, Mercer wondered. Lower down the page, results were given. The double punting had been won, for the third year in succession, by Venetia and Willoughby Slade. They had also scored a second in the Fancy Dress Canoe Contest, and Venetia had won the Ladies Spring-board Free-style Diving.

He thought about that athletic body dressed, he was sure, in the scantiest of permissible bathing costumes, running to the end of the spring-board, bouncing upwards in a perfect jack-knife, and straightening out to hit the water, one rigid line from finger tips to toes. He was still thinking about it when he got back to the station and found Rye talking to a worried man and a stout grey-haired woman.

“Mr. and Mrs. Benson,” he said. “They recognised that compact. It's some stock they had about three years ago.”

“That's right,” said Mr. Benson. “A traveller from Hollingsheds sold us six of them. I thought, at the time, they weren't quite our line. But as a matter of fact, we sold three of them almost immediately to summer visitors. Then we never made another sale for twelve months or more. I remember saying to the wife, ‘We'll never get our money back on those things—' “

“Which was nonsense,” said his wife placidly. “Because we sold two more that same summer. The last one never went. So I thought, as we'd got our money back on the other five, I'd use it myself.” She opened her bag and pulled out a compact. It was clearly twin to the one they had found. Mr. Benson pointed out the tiny mark which he had scratched inside the lid, an inverted ‘B'.

“I do that with anything valuable,” said Mr. Benson. “In case there's a question of identifying it afterwards.”

“Quite right,” said Rye. “I only wish everyone was as methodical. Now about those other two—?”

“They were cash sales, you understand, so there wouldn't be any actual record. But one of them we can remember. It was Captain Barrington's daughter, the older one who lives with him. The other one has quite gone out of my mind—”

“Well it hasn't gone out of mine,” said Mrs. Benson. “I recollected as we came along. We were going past the cinema, and that brought it back to me in a flash.”

“Of course,” said Mr. Benson. “You're right. It was Mr. Skeffington.”

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