Visibility, page 1
Also by Boris Starling
Other Books by this Author
Chapter 1 - December 4, 1952 Thursday
Chapter 2 - December 5, 1952 Friday
Chapter 3 - December 6, 1952 Saturday
Chapter 4 - December 7, 1952 Sunday
Chapter 5 - December 8, 1952 Monday
Chapter 6 - December 9, 1952 Tuesday
Three days before this book was published in the United Kingdom, my sister, Belinda, died. She was thirty-four, and her first novel had just been accepted for publication. Her myriad qualities as a sister and friend aside, she had always been my most perceptive and constructive critic. Every manuscript I sent her came back with pages and pages of notes, every single one valuable and accurate—sometimes uncomfortably so! She was every bit as fantastic an author as she was a critic, and though her career has been ended almost before it started, perhaps in years to come she’ll be bracketed alongside Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee, women who wrote one immortal novel each and called it a day right there.
At HarperCollins, Julia Wisdom has the patience of a saint, and Anne O’Brien the eyes of an eagle. They are brilliant editors, and every time I read their notes I realize how lucky I am to have them.
At A. P. Watt, Caradoc King is quite simply the best agent a writer could ask for.
Much, perhaps too much, of a modern author’s research can be done online, but now and then we have to emerge blinking into the sunlight. My investigations for Visibility took me to Tower Bridge, where I was royally looked after; special thanks to Claire Forrest, Charles Lotter, and Dave Savage.
Thanks too to the guides at Highgate Cemetery, one of London’s most beautiful parks, and sadly, too, one of its most under-resourced. The Friends of Highgate Cemetery do a grand job, but they will always need people with time or money to spare to aid them in maintenance. Please help them if you can.
Most of all, thank you to Charlotte, who is the best thing that ever happened to me.
December 4, 1952
The fog was coming, without and within.
On the far side of the river, the first smoky tresses were stroking the rooftops with fingers as slim and elegant as a concert pianist’s. If a man had watched for a while, he would have seen the mist crawling slowly across the cityscape, its purposeful stealth that of a prowling cat.
And if a man had watched for a while, he might have felt the first hazings in his head, a gauze which would make the world opaque and through which he would have to reach for his very thoughts.
The fog had come before, but rarely with such purpose. Londoners were nothing if not survivors, however, and they knew when trouble was ahead. Certainly they needed no warning from the weathermen to brace themselves for a bad one.
New Scotland Yard was a riverside riot of turrets, crenellations, and people; a Gothic extravagance that swallowed thousands of worker bees every morning and spat them out again come dusk. Overcrowding was a permanent endemic; the place had grown like Topsy, with new buildings added every few decades to ease the strain, but the problem remained resolutely unallayed. Bounded by the Thames in front and Whitehall to the rear, New Scotland Yard’s room for expansion was running out fast.
Shifts in the Metropolitan Police’s Murder Squad came in threes: the morning, 6 A.M. until 2 P.M.; the afternoon, 2 P.M. until 10 P.M.; and the night, 10 P.M. until 6 A.M. On the days when Herbert Smith, once of the British Army, latterly of MI5, and now a member of said Murder Squad, was scheduled for the afternoon slot, he liked to lunch beforehand with no company save for that afforded by a pie, a pint, the Evening Standard, and the Times crossword. He frequented a pub off Smith Square, which at ten minutes’ walking distance from the Yard was at least twice as far as any of his colleagues were liable to venture, even those adventurous enough to seek grounds more exotic than those of the staff canteen.
This day, he read Milton Shulman’s film reviews in the early edition of the Evening Standard, making a mental note to go and see The Narrow Margin at the London Pavilion (“an exciting journey” wrote Shulman), and to miss The Road to Bali, on at the Plaza and succinctly dismissed as “a cul-de-sac.” Herbert usually found Shulman’s opinions pretty accurate, though as he only ever went to the cinema on his own, he had never discovered whether this was a majority opinion or not.
The Standard duly read, he polished off three-quarters of the Times crossword—particularly proud of decoding Writing implement dripped red ink? (7) as “N-I-B-B-L-E-D”—and found without surprise that forcing himself into the office was a genuine physical strain.
It was not that he wanted to stay in the pub—he was not a big drinker—but simply that anywhere was surely better than another afternoon in the office.
There, in a nutshell, was the contradiction at the heart of working the murder beat. Days in the Yard, cramped, airless, and noisy, were dreadful; but to get out of there, someone had to have been killed, and Herbert had seen enough violent death in his time not to wish for more of it.
And, if he was to be honest, cramped, airless, and noisy weren’t the half of it. No one else on the Murder Squad seemed to mind the conditions, but then no one else on the Murder Squad felt as though their presence was at best tolerated and at worst resented.
Herbert was not one of them. He hadn’t done his time in the ranks, and he was still learning how to do things the Scotland Yard way. As far as his colleagues were concerned, therefore, his time at Five might as well have been a sojourn in the inner circles of Hell. Suspicion between arms of the law was always bad; when an espionage service was involved, it was exacerbated tenfold.
Of the five men round the table when Herbert walked into the office, only Tyce and Veal acknowledged him, and only Veal did so with anything that approximated a greeting in recognized English. Tyce gave a curt nod. The others, Connolly, Tulloch, and Bradley, glanced at him as though he were something the cat had brought in, and turned their attention back to the matter at hand; that matter being the case of Christopher Craig, an unlovely, manipulative psychopath, and Derek Bentley, an illiterate, impressionable epileptic, who had broken into a warehouse in Croydon the previous month.
The police had arrived. Craig had drawn a gun. Bentley had shouted: “Let him have it, Chris.”
A plea to surrender the weapon, or an exhortation to murder?
Craig, clearly taking it as the latter—assuming that he had listened to Bentley at all, which given their relationship seemed unlikely—had shot two policemen. Detective Constable Frederick Fairfax was hit in the shoulder, painful but not too serious. Police Constable Sidney Miles was killed.
Killing a policeman was so far beyond the pale as to be invisible. Bentley and Craig were due to stand trial at the Old Bailey the coming Tuesday, the ninth, and there was not one man in Scotland Yard who felt anything other than that they should both be convicted of murder.
No, that was not quite true. There was one man who felt otherwise, one man only—and that man was Herbert.
The problem, as far as Herbert was concerned, was this. The death penalty applied only to those over eighteen. Craig, who deserved to hang as much as anyone Herbert had ever encountered, was only sixteen. Even if he was found guilty, he would not be executed.
But Bentley was nineteen, and he would surely swing; even though his mind was that of a child, even though he had not fired the fatal shot, and even though he was less Craig’s friend than his plaything.
He had expressed these thoughts to his colleagues once, and they had made it clear that once was once too many.
So now they hunched round a table and discussed the trial next week; specifically, what they termed strategy for their appearances in the witness box, and what the cynical would have called getting their stories straight.
Herbert’s colleagues departed to continue their discussions in the pub sometime around dusk, leaving Herbert marooned in the office while another afternoon exodus ebbed and flowed around him. From the window, he saw that the fog was thickening now, diffusing the street lamps into haloes of dull gold. People scurried beneath with collars up and chins down.
He sensed a communal disillusion with the weather. The previous day had been magical, one of those winter days which made one believe sincerely that England was God’s own country: skies of lapis lazuli, air so crisp that it fizzed on the way down to your lungs, and a cheerful sunshine dappling lightly through bare branches. Now there was only filthy, moist gray shot through with traces of sulfur.
Bradley and Tulloch returned about six, realizing that, much as they might have been tempted to, they could not in all conscience leave Herbert minding the fort indefinitely. Not that there was much to do; the steady trilling of phones throughout the afternoon had dwindled to a trickle by the time they came back, and the call at eight o’clock was the first in more than an hour.
Neither Bradley nor Tulloch showed much inclination to answer it.
Bradley did not even move; he might have been a stone Aztec, Herbert thought, forever phlegmatic and unflappable, completely unreadable even to as adept an observer as Herbert.
Tulloch, cut off midway through a rant about whichever aspect of modern society had most recently attracted his ire, clicked his tongue angrily, as though the call had been made purely to irritate him. He tended to treat all crimes as a personal slight, or at least an institutional one, as if the very existence of the police force should have been enough to stop the forces of lawlessness and disorder in their tracks.
Herbert let the phone ring a few times for form’s sake, and then picked up.
“New Scotland Yard,” he said.
“Is that the Murder Squad?” A young man’s voice, breathless with excitement.
Herbert felt a brief twinge in his gut; apprehension and excitement tangling.
“This is Sergeant Elkington, in Hyde Park. I’ve got a floater in the Long Water.”
Elkington stumbled over the word “floater,” as if its use implied a casual machismo that he did not really possess.
Herbert sighed. Fogs always brought death; people who couldn’t see where they were going and tipped off walls or into rivers, usually. Had Herbert been a betting man, he would have considered an accumulator; that this floater, as Elkington had so unconvincingly referred to it, had had a few drinks inside him when he had walked into the water, and that he wouldn’t be the last.
Herbert looked at his colleagues, rolled his eyes, and made a drinking gesture.
Bradley stared back, his expression altered not a jot. Tulloch ground his teeth in silent fury at the world.
Herbert wondered why he bothered. A simple human connection, that was all he was trying to establish. Perhaps the day he stopped trying was the day it would happen.
He turned his attention back to Elkington. “Any reason you’re calling me …?”
“Sergeant Elkington,” Elkington repeated, in case Herbert hadn’t got it the first time. “No more than the usual. Just taking precautions.”
Herbert now knew exactly the kind of policeman Elkington was: the Janus sort, always looking to cover his behind so that if anything went wrong he had already and demonstrably passed the buck, all the while squinting forward through ambition-slitted eyes, so that if anything went right he was in position to claim as much credit as possible.
The biggest excitement in the Hyde Park police station was locking the park gates every night. Herbert was sure Elkington wouldn’t be there long; he would get himself transferred as soon as possible, treating every case as a possible key to the door which led out and up.
Herbert considered a moment. Neither Bradley nor Tulloch would want the case. They had wives and children, and they needed a new case this late in the day like a hole in the head. At best, it would be a false alarm; at worst, a serious drain on their Friday, possibly their weekend, too.
A cold, foggy night; a warm room for once mercifully quiet.
“Where’s the body?” Herbert asked.
“By the Peter Pan statue,” Elkington said.
* * *
Herbert told Bradley and Tulloch where he was going, and promised to call in the moment he had something concrete. “Any time after ten,” Tulloch said; meaning he could call as much as he liked, once the night shift had come on. He wasn’t joking.
Herbert took a car from the pool and almost immediately regretted it. The fog was already thick enough to make driving difficult, and Herbert lost his way twice, even on roads he was sure he knew like the back of his hand. Headlights were little use; they simply bounced back off the thick particles of mist.
Eventually, he parked round the back of the Albert Hall and completed the journey on foot, his breath billowing in lung-shaped plumes around his head as he hurried forward against the cold.
Elkington had ensured that the scene was lit by flaming torches, as though it were some sort of pagan funeral. The edge of the water was blotched with ice, and covered in what looked like a thin film of powdered graphite. Herbert wondered for a moment where this film could have come from, and realized with a start that it must have settled there from the fog. What other particles the mist was carrying, and what was settling inside his lungs every time he inhaled, scarcely bore consideration.
The Long Water was a dammed river; effectively a lake, therefore, without a current. The floater was a few yards from shore. It was lying facedown, as corpses tended to, with its limbs and head hanging lower than its torso. Perfectly motionless, it could have been a jellyfish.
Elkington looked even younger than he sounded,cold-reddened cheeks smooth beneath a pile of dirty blond hair.
“I’ve touched nothing, sir,” Elkington said. “All I’ve done is call you and seal the scene; twenty yards in every direction.” Twenty yards was already beyond the limits of visibility; Elkington’s gestures indicated nothing but fog. “That’s correct procedure, isn’t it, sir?”
Herbert had been dead right about the kind of person Elkington was. His initial deduction now seemed less inspired guesswork than impeccable snap judgment. Still, he reflected, at least it was a pleasant change to have someone look up to him, after the stonewalling indifference he faced back at the Yard.
“That is indeed,” Herbert said.
“The way you would have done it?”
“Don’t tell me—you’ve always wanted to work in the Murder Squad.”
“As a matter of fact, sir, I have.”
“Then you can start by telling me who found the body.”
“I did.” If Elkington had put his hand up and started shouting Me, sir, me, me, it would not have surprised Herbert in the slightest. “When I was doing my rounds.”
“You were alone?”
“No, sir. I was with Flew and Hare. Here, sir.”
He indicated the constables either side of him. Flew had a neat, slightly effete face framed by a mass of curly black hair. Hare’s nose kinked halfway down and set off at a tangent; broken and badly reset, Herbert thought. Like Elkington, neither looked old enough to be shaving yet, let alone policing.
Herbert nodded at Flew and Hare, and they waded into the water with a synchronicity of which twins would have been proud.
Elkington made a sign of the cross, which Herbert might have found
There was an autopsy unit at Imperial College, less than a mile away on Exhibition Road. The pathologist, a small man whose glasses were as round and shiny as the top of his head, was waiting for Herbert in the foyer.
“Rathbone,” he said simply.
Rathbone, Elkington, Flew, Hare; didn’t these people have Christian names?
Herbert and Rathbone shook hands.
“Right then, right then.” Rathbone’s voice rose and fell in twittering ululations. “Let’s get on with it, yes?”
There would soon be a backlog, he explained en route to the autopsy room; pedestrians hit by cars traveling too fast in the murk, elderly people for whom the extra pollution would prove too much.
Herbert supposed it lucky that the body had been found before the rush.
It could not have been in the water long, for it was still recognizably human, more than enough for Herbert to imagine what the man must have been like in life.
He rattled through the alphabetical checklist that had been drummed into him during Five’s surveillance training. A for age: mid-twenties. B for build: medium, as far as he could tell under the man’s dark suit, which took him neatly on to C for clothes—white shirt, crimson tie, dapper black shoes, no hat. No surprise in any of that; men invariably wore a jacket and tie, whatever they were doing and wherever they were going. Strange not to have been wearing a coat in this weather, though.
No Distinguishing marks. Ethnic origin: Caucasian. F for face, in this case somewhat cherubic, even through the postmortem swelling. No Glasses, at least none still hooked over the ears; and, since he was dead, no chance to ascertain his Gait. His Hair was blond and floppy. He carried no Items.
All this had gone through Herbert’s head in less than a second.
Rathbone stripped the body quickly and efficiently until it was laid out in inglorious nudity on the examination table. Herbert supposed that pathology, with all its emphasis on the clinical and chemical, was intended to sanitize death. Here, it seemed to have exactly the opposite effect, making it even more revolting than Herbert had thought possible.