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Authors: Anne Perry

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BOOK: Half Moon Street
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“It was one person?” Pitt said quietly.

The surgeon drew in his breath between his teeth.

“You are right,” he conceded. “I was making assumptions. I simply cannot imagine this sort of . . . lunacy . . . being a mutual affair. There is something essentially solitary about obsession, and obsessive—dear God—this is, if anything in the world is. I suppose some alternative is conceivable, but you’ll have to prove it to me before I’ll believe it. In my opinion one solitary man did this because of a perverse passion, a love or a hatred so strong that it broke all the bands of sense, even of self-preservation, and not only did he strike that man and kill him, he then was compelled to dress him like a woman and set him adrift on the river.” He swiveled to look at Pitt sharply. “I can’t think of any sane reason for doing that. Can you?”

“It obscures his identity . . .” Pitt said thoughtfully.

“Rubbish!” the surgeon snapped. “Could have taken his clothes off and wrapped him in a blanket to do that. Certainly didn’t have to set him out like the Lady of Shalott—or Ophelia, or whoever it is.”

“Didn’t Ophelia drown herself ?” Pitt asked.

“All right—Lady of Shalott, then,” the surgeon snapped. “She was stricken by a curse. Does that suit you better?”

Pitt smiled wryly. “I’m looking for something human. I don’t suppose you can tell if he was French, can you?”

The surgeon’s eyes opened very wide. “No—I cannot! What do you expect—‘made in France’ on the soles of his feet?”

Pitt pushed his hands into his pockets. He felt self-conscious now for having asked. “Signs of travel, illnesses, past surgery . . . I don’t know.”

The surgeon shook his head. “Nothing helpful. Teeth are excellent, one small scratch on the finger, just an ordinary dead man wearing a green dress and chains. Sorry.”

Pitt gave him a long, level stare, then thanked him and left.

Early afternoon found Pitt at the French Embassy—after he had eaten a sandwich in a public house, with a pint of cider. He did not wish to see Meissonier again. He would only repeat what he had said at Horseferry Stairs, but Pitt was not convinced that the man in the boat was not the diplomat Bonnard. So far it was the only suggestion he had, and Meissonier had been acutely uncomfortable. There had been relief in his face when he had seen the body more closely, but his anxiety had not vanished altogether. Had it been only because there was nothing that could be traced to him and he was free to deny it was Bonnard?

How could Pitt now question him again? He would appear to be calling Meissonier a liar, which, considering he was a foreign diplomat— a guest in England, as he had pointed out—would be sufficient to cause an unpleasant incident for which Pitt would rightly get the blame.

The answer was that he must find some other excuse to call. But what could that be? Meissonier had denied all connection with the corpse. There were no questions to ask him.

Pitt was already at the door. He must either knock or continue along the street. He knocked.

The door was opened by a footman in full livery.

“Yes sir?”

“Good afternoon,” Pitt said hastily. He produced a card and handed it to the footman, speaking at the same time. “One of your diplomats was reported missing, I now believe in error, according to Monsieur Meissonier. However, before I alter the police record I should like to speak to the person who made the original report. It would look better if he were the person to withdraw it. Tidier . . .”

“Indeed? Who would that be, sir?” The footman’s expression did not change in the slightest.

“I don’t know.” He had only just thought of the excuse. He should have asked the constable at Horseferry Stairs, but it had not mattered then. “The gentleman reported missing is Monsieur Bonnard. I imagine it would be whoever he works with, or is his friend.”

“That will be Monsieur Villeroche, I daresay, sir. If you care to take a seat I shall ask when he is able to see you.” He indicated several hard-backed leather benches, and left Pitt to make himself, if not comfortable, at least discreet.

The footman returned within minutes.

“Monsieur Villeroche will see you in a quarter of an hour, sir. He is presently engaged.” He said no more, and left Pitt to make up his own mind if he wished to wait.

As it turned out, Monsieur Villeroche must have finished with his visitor earlier than expected. He came out into the hallway himself to find Pitt. He was a dark, good-looking young man dressed with great elegance, but at the moment he was obviously perturbed. He looked in both directions before approaching Pitt.

“Inspector Pitt? Good. I have a small errand to run. Perhaps you would not mind walking with me? Thank you so much.” He did not give Pitt time to refuse. He ignored the footman and went to the door, leaving Pitt to follow behind. “Most civil of you,” he said as he stepped outside.

Pitt was obliged to walk smartly to keep up with him until they were around the corner of the next street, where Villeroche stopped abruptly.

“I . . . I’m sorry.” He spread his hands in a gesture of apology. “I did not wish to speak where I might be overheard. The matter is . . . delicate. I do not mean to cause embarrassment for anyone, but I am concerned . . .” He stopped again, seemingly uncertain how to continue.

Pitt had no idea whether he knew of the body at Horseferry Stairs or not. The midday newspapers had carried the story, but possibly none of them had reached the embassy.

Villeroche lost patience with himself. “I apologize, monsieur. I reported to your excellent police that my friend and colleague Henri Bonnard has disappeared . . . that is to say, he is not where we would expect to find him. He is not at his work, he is not at his apartment. None of his friends have seen him in several days, and he has missed appointments of business as well as social functions at which he was expected.” He shook his head quickly. “That is most unlike him! He does not do these things. I fear for his welfare.”

“So you reported him missing,” Pitt concluded. “Monsieur Meissonier has told us that he is on leave. Is it possible he went without the courtesy of informing you?”

“Possible, of course,” Villeroche agreed, not taking his eyes from Pitt’s face. “But he would not have missed his duties. He is an ambitious man who values his career, at least . . . at least he would not jeopardize it for a trivial matter. He might . . . er . . .” He was obviously at a loss, trying to explain himself without saying more than he intended, and driven to speak at all only by the most acute anxiety.

“What sort of man is he?” Pitt asked. “What does he look like? What are his habits, his pastimes? Where does he live? What parties were these that he missed?” His mind pictured the man in the punt and the extraordinary green velvet dress. “Does he enjoy the theatre?”

Villeroche was patently uncomfortable. His gaze did not waver from Pitt’s, as if he willed him to understand without the necessity of words.

“Yes, he is fond of . . . of . . . entertainment. Perhaps not always . . . what His Excellency the Ambassador would have best approved. Not that he is . . .”

Pitt rescued him. “Did you hear that we found the body of a man in a boat in the river this morning, at Horseferry Stairs? He answers the description of Henri Bonnard. Monsieur Meissonier was good enough to come to look at it, and he said it was not he. He seemed quite certain. But he also said Monsieur Bonnard was on leave.”

Villeroche looked wretched. “I had not heard it. I am most sorry. I do hope . . . I profoundly hope it is not Henri, but I am equally sure that he is not on leave.” His eyes were steady on Pitt’s face. “He had an invitation to attend a play by Oscar Wilde, and to dine with Monsieur Wilde and his friends afterwards. He did not go. That is not a thing he would do without the most abject apology and an explanation to satisfy an examining magistrate, let alone a playwright!”

Pitt felt a sinking in his stomach.

“Would you like to go to the morgue and see if this man is Bonnard, and be certain in your own mind?” he offered.

“The morgue!”

“Yes. It is the only way you will satisfy yourself.”

“I . . . I suppose it is necessary?”

“Not to me. Monsieur Meissonier has said Bonnard is not missing. I have to accept that. Therefore it cannot be him.”

“Of course. I will come. How long will it take?”

“In a hansom we can be there and back in less than an hour.”

“Very well. Let us make haste.”

Ashen-faced and deeply unhappy, Villeroche stared at the face of the dead man and said it was not Henri Bonnard.

“It is most like him.” He coughed and held his handkerchief to his face. “But I do not know this man. I am sorry for having taken your time. You have been most civil. Please, in no circumstances mention to Monsieur Meissonier, or anyone else, that I came here.” He turned and all but ran out of the morgue and scrambled up into the hansom again, directing it back to the embassy so hastily Pitt had to jump after him not to be left on the pavement.

“Where does he live?” he asked, flinging himself into the seat as the cab pulled away.

“He has rooms in Portman Square,” Villeroche replied. “But he isn’t there. . . .”

“More precisely?” Pitt persisted. “And names of one or two other friends or associates who might know more?”

“Second floor of number fourteen. And I suppose you could ask Charles Renaud or Jean-Claud Aubusson. I’ll give you their addresses. They . . . they don’t work at the embassy. And of course there are Englishmen also. There is George Strickland, and Mr. O’Halloran.” He fumbled in his pocket and did not find what he wanted.

Pitt habitually carried all sorts of things. It had been the despair of his superiors when they saw him more frequently, and even now Commissioner Cornwallis, who had been in the navy before taking up his present appointment, found Pitt’s untidiness hard to tolerate. Now he pulled out string, a pocketknife, sealing wax, a pencil, three shillings and sevenpence in coins, two used French postage stamps he was saving for Daniel, a receipt for a pair of socks, a note to remind himself to get his boots mended and buy some butter, two mint humbugs covered in fluff, and a small pad of paper. He handed the pencil and paper to Villeroche, and put the rest back.

Villeroche wrote the names and addresses for him, and when they reached the corner nearest the embassy, he stopped the cab, said good-bye and then ran across the road and disappeared up the steps.

Pitt called upon all of the men Villeroche had named. He found two of them at home and willing to talk to him.

“Ah, but he’s a fine man,” O’Halloran said with a smile. “But I haven’t seen him in a week or more, which is surely a shame. I expected him at Wylie’s party last Saturday night, and I would have bet my shirt he’d have been at the theatre on Monday. Wilde was there himself, and what a night we had of it, for sure.” He shrugged. “Not that I’d swear I can remember everything of it myself, mind.”

“But Henri Bonnard was not there?” Pitt pressed him.

“That I do know,” O’Halloran said with certainty. He looked at Pitt narrowly out of vivid blue eyes. “Police, you said you are? Is there something wrong? Why are you asking about Bonnard?”

“Because at least one of his other friends believes he is missing,” Pitt replied.

“And they’re sending a superintendent to look for him?” O’Halloran asked wryly.

“No. There was a body found in the Thames at Horseferry Stairs this morning. There was a question it might be him, but two men from the French Embassy have both said it is not.”

“Thank God for that!” O’Halloran said with feeling. “Although it’s some poor devil. Surely you don’t think Bonnard is responsible? Can’t imagine it. Harmless sort of fellow, he is. A bit wild in his tastes, maybe, all for enjoying himself, but no malice in him, none at all.”

“That was never in question,” Pitt assured him.

O’Halloran relaxed, but he could say nothing more of use, and Pitt thanked him and left.

The other person willing to see him was Charles Renaud.

“Actually I rather assumed he’d gone to Paris,” he said with surprise. “I seem to remember him saying something about having to pack, and he mentioned the time the Dover train left. It was all rather in passing, you know? I made the assumption. I’m afraid I wasn’t especially interested. I’m sorry.”

Tellman went to the river police eagerly, not because he had any great fondness for them, but questioning about tides and hours was infinitely preferable to trying to extract embarrassing truths from foreigners who were protected by diplomatic immunity. What the man in the punt had been doing that provoked his murder it was beyond Tellman’s power, or desire, even to guess. Tellman had seen a great deal of the sordid and tragic sides of life. He had grown up in extreme poverty and knew crime and both the need and the viciousness which drove it. But there were things some so-called gentlemen did, especially those connected with the theatre, which no decent person should have a guess at, far less observe.

Men who wore green velvet dresses were among them. Tellman had been brought up to believe there were two sorts of women: good women, such as wives, mothers, and aunts, who did not show passions and probably did not have them; and the sort who did have them, and who showed them publicly and embarrassingly. A man who would dress up as the second was beyond his comprehension.

Thinking of women, and love, brought Gracie to his mind. Without intending to, he could see her bright little face, the angle of her shoulders, the quick way she moved. She was tiny—all her dresses had to be taken up—and too thin for most men’s tastes, with not much shape to her, no more than a suggestion. He hadn’t thought he liked women like that himself. She was all spirit and mind, a sharp tongue, all courage and wit.

Tellman had no idea what she really thought of him. He sat on the omnibus going along the embankment and remembered with curiously painful loneliness how her eyes had shone when she spoke of that Irish valet. He did not want to name the pain inside him. It was something he preferred not to recognize.

BOOK: Half Moon Street
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