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Authors: Michael Gilbert

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“The cinema manager?”

“That's right. He's a bachelor too, and I remember thinking, he must have bought that for one of the usherettes. A leaving present perhaps. It's just the sort of thing he would do. He's a very kindhearted man.”

“Well, we can easily check up on those two,” said Rye. “I don't suppose you can give us any lead to the earlier sales?”

“I can tell you one thing,” said Mrs. Benson. “None of the women who bought the first three compacts would be seen dead carrying a handbag like that red plastic thing. They were ladies. Alligator or real leather was their style.”

“We'll check up on the two local ones first,” said Rye when he had got rid of the Bensons. “But you can bet your bottom dollar it won't be either of them. Life isn't like that. It'll be one of the first three. She didn't buy it for herself, she bought it for her daily, and when she gave it to her she said, ‘I got it at Stoneferry. Pretty little place on the river. You ought to run down there for a picnic one day.' “

“You're probably right,” said Mercer. He looked in to report progress to Superintendent Clark, who said, “Good work. If we can identify the girl we're more than halfway there.”

As Mercer stepped out into the street he was reflecting that this common-sense diagnosis was probably correct. Where a woman was murdered it was nearly always her husband or her boyfriend who had done it. Once they identified the body, the field would narrow dramatically.

The place he was making for was a Georgian house, converted into an office and wrecked in the process. The lower half of the bow windows on either side of the porch was obscured with the sort of wire netting which used to keep flies out of pantries before refrigerators were invented. The name ‘Weatherman's' was painted, in faded gold letters with curly corners, across the glass at the top, further blocking out the light of day from what must, originally, have been two pleasant rooms.

The front hall was a reception office and a girl with a face like an intelligent Cairn terrier took his name, brightened perceptibly when she found out he was a policeman, and dialled a number on the internal telephone. It appeared that Mr. Weatherman was in, and that Mercer was lucky to catch him because he always went out to lunch early on Thursdays, it was his day for the Rotary Club.

“I could show you up,” said the girl, shaking the hair out of her eyes, “but I'm not really supposed to leave the front office until Mrs. Hall gets back from lunch.”

“Lend me a map and a compass,” said Mercer, “and I'll probably make it.”

The girl smiled, and said, “It's not all that difficult. You go straight up the stairs, turn right, and Mr. Weatherman has the room on the right of the landing in front. The one on the left is Mr. Slade.”

Mercer stopped for a moment, with one foot on the bottom stair. He said, “Would that by any chance be Willoughby Slade?”

“That's right,” said the girl. “Do you know him?”

“By reputation,” said Mercer. “I gather he's a very accomplished water-man.”

“Oh, he is,” said the girl. “He's very good at everything on the river.”

Chatting up girls in punts, thought Mercer.

“Tennis, too.” It was clear that Willoughby was the sun and the moon.

Mercer's first impression of Mr. Weatherman was a black coat and a pair of striped trousers. After that you saw a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles, a Rotary Club badge and a platinum key chain. It was only when you looked very closely that you could see that there was anything human behind the façade at all. Eyes so pale that they were almost colourless, a beaky nose dominating a thin mouth. A shrewd operator, thought Mercer. The sort of man you might have looked to find in Norfolk Street or Bedford Row, but unexpected in a quiet backwater like Stoneferry. A pike in a trout stream.

“And how can I help you, Inspector?”

“I was told that you acted for Mr. Prior in the case which was brought against his garage some years ago.”

“Would it be indiscreet to enquire who told you?”

“Not at all. It was a client of yours. Name of Jack Bull. I ran into him last night.”

“Ah,” said Mr. Weatherman.

Mercer could visualise Jack Bull getting his knuckles rapped next time he met his solicitor.

“I should not normally discuss the affairs of a client with a third party. But I imagine you have a good and proper reason for your enquiry.”

“I'll be honest with you,” said Mercer. “I've no reason which would stand up to cross-examination. I was just following up a hunch.”

“The matter can hardly be
sub judice
now. And in any event you could look it up in the files of our local paper. It was fully reported. I have no objection to giving you the facts as I remember them. I must put you right on one point, though. You said that the case was brought against the garage. Unfortunately that was not so. The case was brought against Mr. Prior personally.”

“Because he wasn't a limited company, you mean?”

“That is so. And it was not for want of my advice on the perils of personal trading.”

“I'm sure it wasn't.”

“The case rested, at law, on the proposition that a man is responsible for the acts of his servants. That he must select employees of adequate skill, or supervise them with reasonable care.”

“Which he failed to do.”

“Completely, I'm afraid. The man who attended to Dr. Simpson's car had been less than a month in the garage and there was no evidence, beyond his own say-so, that he was a trained mechanic at all.”

“What was his name?”

“The mechanic? I think it was Taylor. Some name like that. He disappeared on the day of the accident and hasn't been heard of since.”

“You tried to trace him?”

“Certainly. But you will appreciate, Inspector, that a firm of solicitors has very little machinery for a search of that sort.”

“The police could have helped.”

“Yes,” said Mr. Weatherman. “They could have helped.” The innuendo was so clear that Mercer started to say something, and then, meeting a glance from the lawyer's eyes, changed his mind.

“What happened to Prior?”

“He sold his stock and premises. I believe he got quite a good price. Enough to clear his debts.”

“Where is he now?”

“After the case was over, I lost touch with him. I believe he left the district.”

Mr. Weatherman's eyes strayed towards the watch on his left wrist and Mercer said, “Well, I mustn't keep you any more. Thank you very much.”

When he reached the front hall the Cairn terrier had gone and the seat behind the reception desk was occupied by a grey-haired woman. Mrs. Hall, without doubt. She was talking to a young man, who looked up as Mercer went past.

Chalk-stripe flannel suit, reversed calf shoes, white collar, regimental tie. A sun-tanned face and dancing blue eyes. The family resemblance was quite unmistakable.

As Mercer went past, Mrs. Hall was saying, “I'm sorry, Mr. Slade, you'll have to do your own shopping. I've got the books to write up before the auditors come in.”

Mercer filed away the information that the two female members of Weatherman's staff seemed to have different ideas about Willoughby Slade.

Chapter Four

Tom Rye had the operational part of the telephone balanced on his right shoulder, and held in position by his chin. It was an arrangement which left both hands free. With one of them he was scribbling something on a piece of paper, with the other he was squeezing mustard out of a plastic container onto an open ham sandwich.

“Fine,” he said. “That's good. The skipper's just turned up. I'll tell him. Better hang on. He'll probably want to come over himself.” He rang off and said, “That was Len. He's over at the cinema. Old Skeffington bought that compact all right. But he didn't buy it for one of the usherettes. No sir! He bought it for Sweetie Sowthistle.”

Sergeant Gwilliam, who was typing a report, using one finger of each hand, gave a long low whistle. Mercer looked blank. Tom Rye said what sounded like “Eez-oh-ow-is-orter”. He then swallowed the large chunk of bread and ham which was obstructing him, apologised, and said, “What I said was, she's old Sowthistle's daughter. He's quite a local character. He lives in a barge on Easthaugh Island. That's about a quarter of a mile downstream from where they found the body.”

“Then we'd better have a word with his daughter quick.”

“There's an objection to that. She disappeared. When was it Taffy?”

“More than two years ago,” said Sergeant Gwilliam.

Mercer said, “Oh, I see. More than two years ago.” His heavy face was thoughtful. “Well it looks as though we might be able to short-circuit this one, doesn't it.”

“The only thing is,” said Rye, “that if you're thinking that the next step will be to rope in Sweetie's boyfriend of two years ago and put him through the pulper, you're going to have your work cut out. She wasn't much more than seventeen when she disappeared, but she'd been laid by half the males in Stoneferry.”

“Quite a girl,” said Mercer.

“She was a trollop,” said Sergeant Gwilliam. His upbringing had been Chapel, and strict.

Mr. Skeffington turned out to be a smallish man with thick-lensed glasses and a mop of untidy hair. He greeted Mercer with a cheerful smile, and seemed unembarrassed by the circumstances which had brought him to the attention of the police.

“That's quite right,” he said. “I knew Sweetie. She applied for a job here once. I'd have liked to give it her, but I couldn't see my way to doing it.”

“Why not?”

“I couldn't have trusted her, Inspector. You know what a cinema's like in the afternoon. Pitch dark. Practically no one there. You'd be surprised what we pick up in the back row of the stalls after the performance is over.”

“You knew her yourself quite well?”

“What makes you think that?”

“You gave her this compact.”

“I'm always giving things to girls. I've got a generous nature.”

“Weren't you overdoing it a bit, sir? I mean, if your acquaintance with her was confined to one occasion, when she asked for a job and you weren't able to offer her one—”

“That wasn't the only time. I'd met her several times before that.”

“Socially?”

“You might call it socially I suppose,” said Mr. Skeffington blandly. “She was a very popular girl. Everyone liked Sweetie. Sad to think she should have ended like that.”

“Ended like what, Mr. Skeffington?”

“Murdered, Inspector. Murdered and buried on Westhaugh Island. At least, I think it must have been her, or you wouldn't be asking me all these questions.”

“We have reason to think that it might be,” said Mercer stiffly. He found Mr. Skeffington disconcerting. “When did you give her this compact?”

“Your sergeant was asking me that. I was able to tell him almost exactly.” Mr. Skeffington consulted a desk diary. “It was in the third week of September, three years ago. One of the usherettes, a Miss Williams that was, had given in her notice to go and get married. I really bought the compact as a present for her. Then I found the other girls were collecting money for a fitted handbag and a compact and since there didn't seem to be much point in giving her two compacts, I added my contribution to that, and kept the compact. Then Sweetie turned up asking for the job, and seeing that I had to disappoint her, I gave it to her.”

“Do you give presents to all applicants for jobs that you have to refuse?”

“Not to all girls, but Sweetie was an exception.”

“Why?”

“Because I was sorry for her.”

“Why particularly?”

“It's clear, Inspector,” said Mr. Skeffington, “that you're new here. You've never met her father.”

“He's a filthy old sod,” said Rye. “Real name is Hedges. It was the boys who called him Sowthistle. It used to be a ‘dare' among them to slip across to his island, crawl through the undergrowth, and peep in at one of the portholes to see what he was up to. You can imagine what sort of a kick they got out of doing that.”

“Where did he come from?”

“Nobody knows. He landed up here after the war, and took possession of that derelict barge. He fitted it up, after a fashion, and started to live there with a woman who was charitably referred to as his wife. She walked out on him when Sweetie was about ten. I don't blame her. He used to beat her when he was drunk and he was drunk pretty often.”

“Why didn't the authorities take the girl away from him?”

“They tried to. Sowthistle kicked up a fuss. The great heart of the British public was stirred. A fund was got up. Counsel was briefed. It was in all the papers. Poor lonely old man, deserted by his wife! Now they try to rob him of his daughter!! His sole prop and stay!!! Yards of sentiment. Buckets of tears. Two years later she applied to us for protection. He'd tried to rape her.”

“What did the great British public think of that?”

“They didn't want to hear about that bit. We put her into a local authority home at Slough and she stayed there until she was fourteen. Then she elected to go back and look after Dad. Maybe she thought she was old enough to manage him. Maybe she thought it was a good base of operations. She was quite a good-looking girl in a healthy, animal sort of way.”

Mercer cocked an eye at him, and Rye had the grace to blush. “I wouldn't have said no,” he agreed. “But I wasn't her cup of tea. The men she went for were middle-aged men with money. When she disappeared we made a full list of 'em—just in case.”

Rye extracted a paper from the file, and pushed it across. Mercer saw that there had originally been about twenty names on it, but a lot of them had been crossed through.

“Died, or left the district,” said Rye. “Or we couldn't prove they'd had anything to do with Sweetie at all. They were names other people had suggested, but they didn't come to anything. You know how people talk.”

“I know how people talk,” agreed Mercer. “Who are the ones that are left? Skeffington I know.”

“Camberley, he's a commercial gent. He was one of her regulars. Barrington's a retired naval P.O. Got a houseboat downriver. Henniker's a turf accountant. Jeejeeboy's a Pakistani. He runs the restaurant next to the old bridge.”

“No colour bar?”

“Certainly not. One of her regular ex-boyfriends was a Chinaman.”

“And what about this one?” said Mercer.

It was the last name on the list.

“Rainey. He works for Jack Bull. Keeps his books for him.”

“I've met him,” said Mercer. “He's a dipso.”

“I've heard he was a bit of a drinker.”

“He's not just a heavy drinker. He's an alcoholic. When you've met one or two of them you can't miss it.” Mercer was standing with the list in his hand. Rye had noticed that he had a habit of talking about one thing and thinking about something quite different. Now he said, “What was the official reaction when she disappeared?”

“We didn't treat it as a murder case, if that's what you mean.”

“What did you do?”

“Had a word with her known boyfriends. They all said much the same thing. They all admitted they'd paid her money for favours received. But they all said they'd had nothing to do with her for at least a month.”

“What did they make of that?”

“The same as we did. That she'd picked up with a professional. Someone who saw she was worth more than smalltown money. And he'd taken her off and set her up in London. That was our first idea, anyway.”

“The first?”

“And the last, officially. All the same there were some odd points about it. For instance, she had a lot of quite nice clothes. She didn't keep them at home. Her father would have flogged them. Mr. Jeejeeboy let her keep them in a locker, in a room behind his restaurant. She had some jewellery, too. Not worth more than a few pounds, but the sort of thing a girl gets attached to. She left it all behind.”

“It's the sort of thing a girl might do,” said Mercer slowly, “if she was starting a new life. Or thought she was. She wouldn't want the old stuff to remind her of what she was leaving behind. It was trash. It was devalued. It stank.”

“Maybe,” said Rye. “But there's one thing she left behind which would have been worth the same in London as in Stoneferry. We found this among the clothes.”

Mercer took it. It was a Post Office Savings Book. The last figure in it showed a credit balance of £27.15.0.

“What did our revered Superintendent say when you told him about this? Did he still rule out foul play?”

“He said she must have forgotten about it.”

“When did she disappear?”

Rye referred again to his file.

“She was last seen in Stoneferry late afternoon, on a Wednesday in March. Father Wolcot spoke to her.”

Mercer was examining the book. He said, “The last entry is five pounds drawn out on March 7th. She must have had a very short memory.”

“I don't think the old man wanted it to be murder. He likes to keep his statistics healthy. If it was a disappearance, it wasn't a crime. Not even a suspected one.”

“That's one way of keeping your sheet clean,” said Mercer. “We'd better get after these six and put 'em through it again. Who've we got?”

“This is one of those moments,” said Rye, “when we'd like a real detective force. Half a dozen clean-limbed youngsters sitting round, straining like greyhounds on the leash, waiting for the word ‘go'.”

“Who
have
we got?”

“You and me. And Massey. Sergeant Gwilliam's starting his leave and Prothero's up in London, where he'll be for the best part of three days.”

“What the hell's he doing there?”

“Waiting to produce some photographs and give five minutes' evidence about nothing at all. You know, Skipper, I've often wondered why they bother to try people. Why don't they just say, ‘The police have arrested them, they must be guilty, send 'em to prison'?”

“You do Camberley and Barrington. Massey can take the bookie and the Pakistani.”

“That leaves Rainey for you.”

“Yes,” said Mercer. “And by the way. That chap Prior.
Did
he leave the district?”

“Prior?”

“Owner of the Stoneferry Central Garage.”

“Oh him. No. I don't think so. I've got an idea he lives in one of those bungalows above Westhaugh Lock. Why?”

“Weatherman said, after Prior went bust he left the district. I'm going to have a word with Rainey now. Be back in half an hour.”

“Extraordinary chap,” said Rye to himself. “Doesn't seem able to keep his mind on one thing at a time.”

As Mercer was passing the Superintendent's office, the door opened and Clark came out. He said, “Oh, Mercer. I understand you're making a bit of headway with the case of that girl.”

“That's right, sir.”

The Superintendent was blocking the passage. Short of pushing, he couldn't get past him.

“I'd like to be kept in the picture about it. Fully in the picture.”

“I'll see you're kept in the picture.”

“Do I understand you've identified her?”

“We've got a tentative identification. Nothing definite yet.”

“I see. Well, keep me posted.” He made a half move, and Mercer slid past him. “You realise that if we clear this up without any help from Central this will be a feather in our caps.”

“A feather in your cap, you crafty old bastard,” said Mercer as he went out into the street.

“Wojjer say?” said Station Sergeant Rix.

“Nothing. Just talking to myself.”

“Daft,” said Station Sergeant Rix to Station Officer Tovey who happened to come in at that moment.

“Who's daft?”

“The new C.I.D. man. Talking to himself.”

“Those plain-clothes characters are all cracked,” said Tovey.

Bull's Garage and Motor Mart occupied what had been two shops in the High Street, and the yard behind both of them. The site had not been designed as a garage, and as a result the pull-in in front was not as deep as it should have been and the four petrol pumps were squashed against the office frontage. All the same, it looked a pretty prosperous sort of outfit.

Johnno found time to grin at Mercer between finishing filling the tank of an old Bentley with high-octane petrol and starting to sell a quart tin of oil to a youngster in a Mini-Cooper. Mercer wandered through into the office where he found Vikki who was frowning over a pile of indents. The tip of her pink tongue was sticking out of the side of her mouth. When she saw Mercer she cheered up, and said, “Hullo, Sunshine. What can we do for you?”

“Where's the boss?”

“In the yard. What do you want?”

“That,” said Mercer, “is absolutely nothing to do with you.”

“Oh, I'm just the dogsbody,” agreed Vikki with a grin. She looked as happy as a kitten that has found a warm spot to curl up in.

Mercer walked through the office and out into the yard.

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