Malice in London, page 1
Praise for the Erskine Powell series
MALICE IN THE HIGHLANDS
“A story that carries you along, set in beautiful country—vividly and realistically brought to life. You read it—and are there!”
“Malice in the Highlands is the perfect choice for readers nostalgic for the good old-fashioned British village mystery.”
—Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine
MALICE IN CORNWALL
“The Cornish mists and sea swirl constantly in the background of Malice in Cornwall, a murder mystery that can also be read as a travel book.… Graham Thomas certainly knows how to exploit the air of romance, mystery, and danger that still hovers over Cornwall.”
—SUSAN ALLEN TOTH, Author of England for All Seasons
MALICE ON THE MOORS
“Steeped in moor atmosphere, Thomas’s novel is a traditional police procedural in the classic British sense.”
By Graham Thomas
Published by The Ballantine Publishing Group:
MALICE IN THE HIGHLANDS
MALICE IN CORNWALL
MALICE ON THE MOORS
MALICE IN LONDON
A Fawcett Book
Published by The Ballantine Publishing Group
Copyright © 2000 by Gordon Kosakoski
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by The Ballantine Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Fawcett Books and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 99-91752
For Aunt Hedi
Other Books by This Author
From the cities of nine
Days’ night whose towers will catch
In the religious wind
Like stalks of tall, dry straw
Author’s Prologue, Collected Poems 1934–1952
The river looked like tar, sludging along, full of filth, she fancied as she hurried along the quay. She was searching for her dog, Hamish, a terrier of indeterminate lineage who had a predilection for the well-bred cats that infested the Bermondsey docks these days. It was a raw night in March and the damp in the air was palpable, a thick congealing mist that seeped through the fabric of her raincoat into her aching joints. She paused to catch her breath, gathering her collar tightly around her in a vain attempt to keep out the chill.
She glanced nervously about. There was not another soul in sight. Behind her loomed the gothic silhouette of Tower Bridge, its presence more felt than seen in the fog. Up ahead she could see the reassuring glow of the row of shops and restaurants below a block of converted warehouse flats. She scolded herself for being so nervy. Nowadays you were unlikely to encounter anybody more sinister than a stockbroker on the docks and, besides, who would be interested in bothering an old woman? Still, she thought, she had better collect her dog and get home before she caught her death.
“Haaamish!” she called out in a quavering voice. There was no response, so she continued on her way, her footsteps sounding hollowly on the pavement. She picked up her pace slightly as she passed a dark, boarded-off construction site. Eventually, she found herself in front of a derelict warehouse, one of the few remaining vestiges of the Thames’s commercial past that had not yet succumbed to the property developers. Just ahead was St. Saviour’s Dock, a narrow tidal inlet off the river. The channel was crossed by a footbridge and was lined on the far side by smart flats with pink and blue balconies. She shivered convulsively. At that moment she wanted nothing more than to cross over the footbridge and nip back home to put the kettle on.
She looked up at the dripping brickwork of the old Butler’s Wharf warehouse with its rusted iron doors and stairways and gaping black windows. Her Harry had worked on these docks after the war in the heyday when London was still the largest port in the world and thousands of ships of all types and sizes crowded the six-mile stretch of river downstream from the Tower, carrying exotic cargoes from the far-flung outposts of the Empire. There were times, particularly after a fresh rain, when she could smell the faint perfume of cinnamon and cloves that still permeated the timbers of the old buildings. She gave an involuntary sigh. Everything had changed in the Sixties when the container ships all moved to Tilbury and Harry went on the dole. Mustn’t wallow in it, she told herself, but it was hard to accept the gentrification of her old neighborhood.
“Where is that naughty dog?” she said aloud, getting truly cross now. She’d give him a proper scolding when he came back. Maybe he’d chased a cat into the old warehouse—
Her train of thought was interrupted by a faint whimpering sound. “Hamish?” she called out doubtfully. She strained to listen, but all she could hear was the river lapping against the pilings and the sound of her own breathing. She frowned. Perhaps it had been a rat.
Without knowing why exactly, she walked over to the concrete parapet and peered over. An iron ladder descended to the river; the pitted wall was stained with streaks of rust. She stared into the black, oily water and shuddered. The Thames had supposedly been cleaned up to the point where even a few foolhardy fish had ventured back, but she reckoned it would still kill you if you fell in. She was about to turn away when she suddenly froze.
There was a commotion at the base of the ladder. She stared, uncomprehending, as a hand rose slowly from the water and grasped the bottom rung. Then a head appeared and another arm, fingers splayed, stretching toward her. She could see the face now, festooned with strands of hair like seaweed, its mouth contorted into a silent scream. Before she could react, the body slipped back and disappeared beneath the surface of the water like a half-remembered dream.
From the window of his study, Powell surveyed the wasteland of his back garden and speculated once again about what Marion would say when she returned from Canada at the end of summer. The list of chores he should have done but didn’t, and the things he could still do but probably wouldn’t, encroached on his mental landscape like so many weeds. He had dutifully read Marion’s voluminous instructions, a sort of horticultural à la recherche du temps perdu:
Apply manure and fertilizer, plant onion sets and shallots, warm up soil with cloches [cloches?], start sowing vegetables without protection [was this wise?], sow early kitchen crops in cold frames, plant new strawberries, chit [?] seed potatoes, fertilize fruit bushes if needed [how in heaven’s name was he to judge this?], plant gladioli bulbs, sow hardy annuals [exactly w
And that was just the first page covering early spring.
Powell appreciated an attractive garden as much as the next person—he was simply content to leave the mechanics to those, like his wife, who had the aptitude for it. He had once read somewhere that in spring a true gardener thinks of birds and plump buds and cannot wait to start propagating. He could at least relate to that sentiment.
With his family away in Canada—Peter and David at university and Marion on sabbatical for a year—Powell found himself at loose ends. He supposed it was the lack of structure in his life, for want of a better word, that was the most difficult thing to adjust to. Not that his routine had changed appreciably—the daily commute by train to London and the drudgery of his job at the Yard. It was the weekends he missed most, when he could catch up with his sons’ busy lives, tinker with his car, or just sequester himself in his study and read, with the domestic engine of the Powell household throbbing reassuringly all around him. Or perhaps do something with Marion, just the two of them, although there hadn’t been much time for that in recent years. Increasingly, it seemed, they were leading more or less parallel lives, which converged only occasionally. And with Marion away pursuing her academic career, it appeared that they were presently on sharply divergent courses.
He glanced distractedly out the window again. The tulips looked all right, he supposed, trying to see the bright side of things. He could see the neighbor’s Siamese cat creeping up on a robin beside the greenhouse. He wondered if they thought about him often. Who could blame them if they didn’t? He knew better than anyone that he was hardly the model husband or father, but he sometimes wondered if he had it all to do over again, whether he would do anything differently. To avoid descending any further down that slippery slope, he turned his mind to another well-worn preoccupation: his nemesis, Sir Henry Merriman, Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service.
Sir Henry, thank God, had been unsuccessful in his recent bid for the top job, but he was now on the hunt for scapegoats, convinced that several of his senior officers, including Powell, had done him in. Powell was on decent terms with the new Commissioner, so he wasn’t particularly worried. However, he’d have to watch himself—Merriman was utterly ruthless and, if nothing else, had shown a consummate talent for survival.
A movement in the corner of his eye caught his attention. The cat had pounced and pinned the robin to the lawn. He then lay down and proceeded to play with it.
Detective-Sergeant Bill Black affected a serious expression when Powell walked into the office the next morning.
“Gov’nor wants to see you, sir,” he announced gruffly.
“What have I done this time?”
Black’s wide face broke into a grin. “He wants some info on salmon fishing in Scotland.”
The new Commissioner had recently taken up game fishing and had obviously heard that Powell had some experience in that line.
“The things I have to do to further my career.”
“Put in a good word for me, would you, sir?”
Powell grimaced. “If you need a recommendation from me, you’re really up the creek.” He gulped down his coffee and headed over to the Commissioner’s Suite.
A half hour later, as he was returning to his office, he bumped into Merriman.
“Where have you been, Powell,” he snapped.
“Talking to Mr. O’Brien, sir,” Powell replied innocently.
Powell glanced at the ceiling. “Personal matter, sir.”
“You report to me, Powell. Don’t ever forget that!” Merriman hissed.
“No, sir.” Powell was beginning to enjoy himself. “Will that be all, sir?”
“No, that will not be all. I have a little job for you. I want you to look into the Brighton matter.”
Richard Brighton, a former councillor on Southwark Council, had turned up dead in the Thames last month. How he got there wasn’t entirely clear, but a random act of violence was the prevailing theory. Powell, guarded now, asked, “What exactly do you want me to look into?”
Merriman smiled smoothly, knowing that he had regained the advantage. “The local lads have taken the case about as far as they can, and it needs a clear-up, that’s all. Given the profile of the case, it wouldn’t be politic to leave any loose ends dangling.”
Better to knot them around my bloody neck, Powell thought. By lumbering him with the Brighton case—the trail had already grown cold, by all accounts—Merriman was, in effect, squandering a precious Murder Squad assignment. Powell’s name would now go the bottom of the list and it might be six months before he was called out again. The Area Major Investigations Pool (still colloquially referred to as the Murder Squad) was made up of senior detectives from the various Met Areas as well as New Scotland Yard. The Pool operated on the basis of a rotating list, with each team, consisting of a Chief Superintendent and a Detective-Sergeant, taking their turn. The AMIP was the only thing that kept him sane, the only opportunity amidst the bureaucratic inanity to do what he’d actually joined up for.
Merriman smirked. “Cat got your tongue, old man? I knew you’d be pleased; I know how much you enjoy getting out into the field.”
Powell could barely contain his fury, but he said nothing.
“Good. You’d better get started then.” Merriman turned on his heel and flounced off.
As Powell headed back to his office, he could not have known that both he and Merriman were dead wrong about the Brighton case.
That evening, Powell sat commiserating with Bill Black in the Fitzrovia Tavern in Charlotte Street.
The stocky sergeant raised his glass. “TGIF, eh, sir?”
“Cheers,” Powell replied gloomily.
“Cheer up, Mr. Powell. There could be more to this one than meets the eye. I’ve had a look at the file, and there are one or two points of interest.”
“Such as, Sherlock?”
Black leaned forward with an earnest expression. “Well, sir, you may recall that Brighton was involved in that controversy over the eviction of the council tenants in Rotherhithe. He must have made a few enemies along the way.”
“Name a politician who hasn’t.” Powell eyed Black with interest. He had learned over the years that it was a mistake to ignore his assistant’s instincts. Slow and methodical, some might even say plodding, Detective-Sergeant Black usually got there in the end.
Black persisted. “His wallet was missing, so the locals reckon it was a blagger who done it, but he could just as easily have lost it in the river.”
“Idle speculation at this point,” Powell observed antiseptically.
Black frowned. “You’re right, sir. It just seems a bit extreme, that’s all. To mug somebody is one thing, but coldblooded murder?”
Powell emptied his pint. “Your round, I think.”
“Er, just a half for me, I think, sir. The missus will be expecting me. Fuller’s, wasn’t it, sir?”
Powell watched his assistant jostle for position at the bar. He lit a cigarette. The pub was doing a modest business that night. Just north of Oxford Street and Soho in the shadow of the British Telecom tower, it was a little off the beaten path for tourists and was frequented by an eclectic mix of students, broadcasting types, writers, and assorted poseurs, along with a few locals, mostly elderly, who actually lived in the neighborhood. Powell often came here for a pint or two after work, followed by a curry next door at the K2 Tandoori. The pub had a long literary history, having been a favorite haunt of writers and poets in the Forties. Poetry readings were still held in the dingy Writer’s Bar downstairs. A poster in the window offered poetic entertainment on Thursday nights by the Cunning Linguist: AN EVENING OF
“Getting back to the matter at hand,” Powell said after Detective-Sergeant Black had resettled himself at their table, “I hope you’re right about the Brighton case. I’d like nothing better than to rub Merriman’s nose in something nasty.”
“I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him, eh, sir?”
Powell smiled. Ever since Black had taken an evening class in English literature appreciation, he was forever spouting quotations, throwing down the literary gauntlet, as it were, to his superior. The unassuming sergeant was blessed with a near-photographic memory, which kept Powell on his toes. Taking his cue, Powell rose to the occasion. “Enough shop talk, Bill. I prithee go and get me some repast. Are you sure I can’t interest you in a cheeky little vindaloo next door? Good for what ails you.”
Opens up the sluices at both ends, you mean, Black mentally translated, based on hard experience living with his superior’s culinary addiction. “Er, no, thank you, sir. The missus will have something on the go by now …” he trailed off awkwardly. He felt slightly guilty about abandoning his superior to his own devices, what with his family away in Canada and nothing but a lonely house to come home to each night. “Er, look, Mr. Powell, why don’t you come along and have a bit of supper with us? Nothing special, but we’d love to have you. If it gets a bit late, we can make up the spare room for you. I’ll call Muriel and—”
Powell smiled warmly. “Thanks, Bill, I appreciate the offer, but I wouldn’t feel right imposing on your good lady on such short notice. Perhaps another time.”
Black looked genuinely disappointed.
“Or I could have you both out to Surbiton some weekend. Do you know anything about gardening, by any chance?”
Black grinned. “Well, if you’re sure, sir.”
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