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Authors: Michael Gilbert

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This was more spacious than the frontage had suggested. There was a row of four lock-up garages down each side, and an open-fronted workshop at the end with two inspection pits and some quite elaborate overhead gadgetry. Jack Bull was working with one of the mechanics underneath a van which had been hoisted on hydraulic stilts. Seeing him stripped confirmed Mercer's first impression. He was a man of formidable physique which was only just beginning to run to seed. He had the barrel chest and rounded shoulders of an old-style wrestler, and his one good arm was thick with muscle.

Seeing Mercer, he climbed out of the pit, wiped his right hand on the side of his denims, and said, “Don't tell me. Let me guess. You've come to buy a car.”

“Five out of ten,” said Mercer. “That's one thing I've come for.”

“I've got just the job. An M.G. Not quite three years old. Done only fifteen thousand. New tyres all round. Yours for two hundred and fifty pounds.”

“What's the catch?”

“No catch. I like to see the force properly equipped. She's in the end garage. Come and have a look at her.”

Mercer didn't need to look twice. Unless there was something seriously wrong with it the car was worth four hundred pounds of anyone's money. “You realise,” he said, “that if a back wheel falls off or the gear-box seizes up first time I use it, you're going to have to put it right.”

“The motto of Bull's Garage is service after sales. And until you find somewhere better, you can keep it here. All you'll need is a key to the yard gate, then you can get it out any time you like.”

“That sounds fine,” said Mercer. “The only thing is, they might want me to keep it at the station.”

“You can't. They've only got two lock-ups there. Bob Clark's got one and Bill Medmenham's got the other. Of course, you
could
keep your car in the open yard at the back of the station. That'd be all right as long as the weather keeps fine.”

“No need to twist my arm,” said Mercer. “I accept your offer, till further notice. It's very kind of you.”

“You won't be the first copper I've helped,” said Bull. “Tom Rye used to keep his jalopy here, until they found him a house with a garage. And so did Sergeant Rollo. That's fixed then. What's your other bit of business?”

“I want to have a word with Rainey.”

“And if I ask you what it's all about, I suppose you wouldn't tell me.”

“I can't see why not, seeing that he'll tell you all about it as soon as I've gone. I want to ask him about a girl called Mavis Hedges, otherwise Sweetie Sowthistle.”

Bull made a noise in his throat. It might have been the ‘Oh' of incredulity or the ‘Ah' of enlightenment, or it might have been a mixture of both.

“So that's who you dug up, was it?” he said.

“It's a possibility.”

“And was Rainey one of hers?”

“A suggestion has been made to that effect.”

“You'd better have a word with him then. He operates in a room round behind the workshop.”

Mercer said thanks, and moved off. As he turned the corner he looked back. Jack Bull was standing watching him. When other pictures had faded, Mercer was to remember that particular one. The man, massive and unmoving, dressed only in a singlet and denim trousers. The army surgeon had taken the left arm off neatly at the elbow. The end of the stump was puckered and seamed.

Most men hide their wounds, thought Mercer. But not Jack Bull.

Chapter Five

“Did you get anything out of him?” asked Rye.

“I got what you always get out of a dipso,” said Mercer. “I got a load of old crap. First he couldn't remember the girl at all. Then he did remember her very vaguely. ‘Time passes so quickly, Inspector. There've been other girls. I couldn't tell you their names, Inspector. That wouldn't be right, would it?' “

Rye laughed, and said, “You'll find Stoneferry is a permissive place. It's something to do with being on the river, I expect. Romantic.”

“What you mean is that a punt is more convenient than the back seat of a car.”

“Something in that,” said Rye. “Talking of cars, is she yours?”

They were standing at the window of the C.I.D. room overlooking the yard.

“Do you like her?”

“Quite a nice-looking bus,” said Rye. “What did Jack Bull sting you?”

“Two hundred and fifty, and unlimited time to pay.”

“It's a gift.”

“That's what I thought.”

“All the same,” said Rye, “I wouldn't have done it myself.”

“Oh. Why?”

“It makes it a bit awkward if you owe local people money.”

“Oddly enough,” said Mercer, “I've never found that to be so.” He was smiling again the smile which Rye found disconcerting. “All my life I've owed people things. It was usually them who found it awkward, not me. Who
is
Bull?”

“Lived here all his life. Went off to the war. Lost an arm at Arnhem. Came back. Bought the garage with his gratuity and a mortgage. Did all right. Paid off the mortgage.”

“Any form?”

“Good heavens, no,” said Rye. He sounded genuinely shocked. “He was on the council for ten years. Member of the Rotary. Past chairman of the Chamber of Commerce. President of the Ex-Service Organisation. You might call him the unofficial mayor of Stoneferry.”

“A solid citizen.”

“Solid as they come. Why? You don't think—?”

“I don't think anything,” said Mercer. “It's just that he seems to be on Christian name terms with an awful lot of senior policemen.”

“He's a friendly short of chap. He let me keep my car in one of his lock-ups.”

“Free?”

“Practically. I think I paid him a bob a week.”

“Did Sergeant Rollo have the same arrangement?”

Rye looked up quickly. Mercer had his back to him and was staring out of the window. Rye said, “Has someone been talking to you about Sergeant Rollo?”

“The name cropped up. He ran into a bit of trouble, didn't he?”

“Dick Rollo was a damn nice boy,” said Rye.

When that seemed to be all he was going to say, Mercer swung round. He wasn't smiling. He said, “Cough it up, Tom. I've got to know about it some time.”

“He had a warning that disciplinary proceedings might be taken. They sent two men down from Central to look into it. Preliminary investigation.”

“What charge?”

“Accepting payments to compound an offence.”

“Did they peg him?”

“They didn't peg him. There were no proceedings. He opted out.”

“How?”

“Since you're so bloody interested, he ran a length of hosepipe from the exhaust into the back of his car and switched the engine on.”

“Did he leave any message?”

“No.”

“Wife or children?”

“Wife. No kids.”

There was a long silence. Mercer seemed disinclined to break it. He was staring out of the window again. It had started to rain, and fat drops were running down the glass, leaving tracks in the summer dust which had accumulated on the outside.

Massey came in. He was carrying a brown paper parcel, which he put down on the table.

“You been shopping?” said Rye. He seemed glad of the interruption.

“I saw that Jeejeeboy,” said Massey. He was a big serious youngster with light hair, blue eyes and the build of a campus athlete. “He gave me these.”

He opened the parcel, and spread out the contents.

“They were things he was looking after for Sweetie. When she disappeared, he thought he'd hang on to them until she turned up again. Now it looks as if it might be—well, it might be sort of permanent—he thought he ought to hand them over.”

There was a knee-length coat, trimmed at the cuffs and hem with fur, a fawn-coloured skirt, a lemon-coloured sweater, and a pair of lizard-skin shoes. The coat was old, and the moth had got into the fur. The other items were newish and looked as if they had cost money. Massey put his hand into his coat pocket and pulled out a paper bag, with ‘Jeejeeboy's Stores' printed on it. He tilted it up and a pile of trinkets fell out. There were two bracelets, an elaborate costume-jewellery brooch, a slave-girl anklet, a necklace of soapstones, a few rings, and finally, as Massey gave the bag a shake, a thin mesh chain with a small golden cross on it.

The three men stood, for a moment, looking down at the pile on the table. Outside the rain was coming down harder. It was beginning to wash away some of the grime.

Mercer said, “I'm going visiting. You can come with me, Massey. Parcel that stuff up. We'll take it along.”

Massey started to say something, but Mercer was already out of the door. He looked at Rye. Rye said, “You heard, boy. Get weaving.”

Mercer drove his new car carefully, getting the feel of it. They had cleared the High Street before he spoke. He said, “You'd better guide me. I've never been there before.”

“I don't know where we're going.”

“And you call yourself a detective. What do you suppose we've brought this stuff with us for? To give it an airing?”

“I imagine we're going to ask Hedges to identify it,” said Massey. “If that's right we've gone past the turning.”

Mercer stamped on the brake so suddenly that Massey nearly hit his head on the windscreen. Then he reversed the car neatly into a gateway.

“I just wanted to test the brakes,” he said. “They're pretty good, aren't they?”

“Very,” said Massey. “Turn down here to the right. You can take the car as far as that clump of alders. Then we have to walk.”

Easthaugh Island was a bigger version of Westhaugh, covered by the same ragged growth, divided from the bank of the river by a deeper backwater, which was spanned by a rather more permanent-looking bridge on cement piles. Sowthistle's barge had been grounded on the inland side, and had subsided so solidly into the mud that it looked like an extension of the island.

“God, what a hole,” said Mercer.

The place stank of stagnant water, rank vegetation and slime. He thought of Sweetie tripping home at night, over the bridge. No wonder she had left her gear behind in Mr. Jeejeeboy's store.

“How do we get in?”

“The door's round the other side.”

A sloping plank led up to an opening cut in the side of the barge. Knocking produced no answer. Massey said, “He's probably at the boozer. They won't throw him out till two o'clock. Not if he's got any money left.”

“Where does he get his money from?”

“It's a mystery. He never shows up at the Labour Exchange – and so far as anyone knows he doesn't draw old age pension.”

Mercer said, “The pubs don't shut till two. That gives us half an hour.”

Balancing on one leg, he swung the sole of his heavy shoe flat against the door, just under the catch. It burst inwards.

“Oughtn't we to have a warrant?” said Massey.

Mercer looked at him curiously. He said, “I'd heard of people like you. I didn't believe they existed outside of books.”

Massey flushed scarlet, and then muttered, “All right, all right. It's your responsibility, Skipper.”

“As long as we're clear on that point,” said Mercer. They stepped down into the barge.

Inside was worse than outside. Much worse. Outside the smells had been rank and vegetable. Inside they were animal. Massey turned round abruptly and made for the opening.

“If you're going to be sick, be sick outside,” said Mercer. “We may have to make a chemical analysis of this muck. Don't let's complicate it.”

“I'm all right,” muttered Massey.

“Hold the torch then.”

It was a heavy double-power inspection lamp, and its white light showed up the disastrous squalor of Sowthistle's living arrangements. There was an old iron bedstead with a leaking feather mattress, blankets which had once been white and were now grey, and an old army overcoat. In one corner a paraffin stove was almost hidden behind a pile of unwashed saucepans and crockery.

“If he cooks his food in those, and eats it off these,” said Mercer, “he must have a bloody wonderful inside. You or I, we'd be dead of food poisoning inside twenty-four hours.” He lifted up a saucepan and peered into it. “What do you think that is?”

Massey sniffed delicately and said, “It smells like kidneys. Do you mind—”

“Sorry,” said Mercer. “I thought it'd be a nice change from the other smells. Let's have a look in that cupboard.”

The cupboard was padlocked. Mercer found a poker, put the point through the staples and twisted them out of the woodwork. The shelves were so tightly crammed that when the doors came open the contents started to cascade onto the floor. There were piles of books and magazines. Mostly foreign and all featuring naked or near-naked girls with enormously inflated bosoms and behinds. There were photographs, single and in sets. There were sheets of typewritten, hand-written and mimeographed paper. Mercer picked up one of them and started to read it.

After a minute he said, “Well, well,” put it down and started on another.

“What's it all about?” said Massey.

“Sexual intercourse,” said Mercer. “This one's entitled, ‘The Ballad of Shooters Hill'. It's hot stuff. Rhymes, too. Hold that torch steady.”

“What
is
all this?”

“I guess it's Sowthistle's personal collection of pornography. Phew! Look at that photograph. On second thoughts you'd better not. You're too young.”

“Dirty old man.”

“I don't think,” said Mercer, turning the photograph over and examining the back of it, “that it's all for his own edification. I think what we've stumbled on is a Licentious Lending Library. You see those crosses and dates.”

“Yes.”

“I'd guess each one represents a loan. The lads of the village come over here and he lets them read these, or maybe borrow them. For a shilling a time, or whatever the going rate for filth is round here. Judging from the number of crosses he must be making a bloody good living out of it. Tax free, into the bargain.”

They heard the gangplank creak, and the opening was darkened for a moment as Sowthistle came through it.

Massey turned the torch on him.

“Who is it?” The voice was high-pitched and querulous. “Who are you? What do you want? You've got no right in there. Clear out the lot of you.”

“You got a lamp?” said Mercer.

“Wassat?”

“I said, have you got a lamp. You must have some light in this hole.”

“Who are you?”

“We're police.”

“Police?” The old man was swaying on his feet, and each time he opened his mouth the sour smell of whisky was added to the other elements in the atmosphere. “You busted open my door, didn't you? You've got no right to do that. And my cupboard.”

“If you don't get that lamp lit, grandpa, I'll bust you, too,” said Mercer.

“All right, all right.”

“Get a move on.”

The pale, smoky light of a paraffin lamp showed up the interior of the barge. It also illuminated its owner. He would have looked a lot less unpleasant, thought Mercer, if he had been dressed in the traditional rags of a tramp, with his toes sticking out of holes in his boots. In fact, he had assembled an outfit which, in different circumstances, might have looked almost respectable. He was wearing a blue suit, two sizes too large for him and shiny at the corners, a flannel shirt and a made-up bow tie which had twisted on its stud and was now pointing north and south, rather than east and west. On his feet, a pair of brown, lace-up boots. Red-rimmed, watery eyes and a stubble of grey beard completed the picture.

Mercer said, “All right. Sit down.”

“I want to know what right you've got—”

Mercer took two quick steps up to him. Sowthistle retreated from the menace, the backs of his legs touched an old armchair, and he folded back into it.

“That's better,” said Mercer. He perched on the edge of the table beside him. “Let's have that stuff.”

Massey opened the bag he was carrying and took out the clothes and trinkets one by one. Sowthistle made no pretence of examining them. He simply nodded his head at each item.

“You identify these as Sweetie's property?” said Mercer.

“I wouldn't say identify. I knew she had some things. Kept them down in town. Wouldn't bring them home.”

“Why not?”

Sowthistle waved a vague hand round the dirt and shambles of his home.

“Answer the question,” said Mercer. “Do you mean she was afraid of the dirt? Or was she afraid you'd take 'em off her?”

“I don't follow you, Inspector. Are you suggesting I'd rob my own flesh and blood?”

“You could read that into it,” said Mercer, “or take it the other way if you like. Did you ever take her clothes off her?”

This got a reaction. Sowthistle started to come out of his chair. Mercer raised his leg, planted his foot in the old man's chest, and pushed him back.

“All you've got to do,” he said, “is sit still and answer questions. Are any of those photographs in the cupboard photographs of your daughter in the next-to-nothing?”

“Of course they aren't. I bought 'em.”

“We shall see when we've had a chance to look through them.” Mercer sat, swinging one leg, and looking down at the old man. “You're on a spot. You know that, don't you?”

BOOK: Body of a Girl
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