Saturday, November 17, 2007

Foxed by Barry Baldwin

FOXED



Even by the sanguinary standards of the East End, it was a nasty one.


‘This is a right do,’ said the larger of the two patrolmen who had been unlucky enough to be near Durward Street when the dispatcher’s call had cut into their quietly cruising enjoyment of Radio London’s dusk to dawn show and a shared bag of illicit fish and chips. It was the second time he’d made this pronouncement since they’d glided to a halt beside what was left of the woman. They hadn’t bothered to enact the pointless melodrama of switching on the siren and screaming a way through the deserted streets of Bethnal Green and Whitechapel at three in the morning. They were seasoned officers, the streets were slippery, the deceased wasn’t going to run away, and the leisurely approach gave them time to finish their fat-laden feast rather than bin it.

They’d eye-balled the mess, radioed in their news, and had been kicking their heels for a good fifteen minutes waiting for the big boys to arrive. The glare of the sodium street lamp and the misty drizzle of a warm summer night conspired to create the illusion that the body at their feet was steaming in its own gore. An impressive pool of vomit near the head made its own artistic comment on this still life without flowers. It was presumably the contribution of the anonymous, long-gone corpse finder and phoner-in. Neither of the policemen had brought up their fish and chips to join it. They had long ago achieved a cast-ironing of the stomach that allowed them to cope with the nightly toll of victims of traffic accidents and violence ranging from mundane beatings and stabbings to such specialised treats as the baby microwaved by its drug-demented mother in a thirtieth-storey flat on a housing estate in one of the local war zones.

‘I reckon she was a tom,’ mused the second of the two, lesser in bulk but in no other way.

‘No reckon about it. What other kind of woman would have been on a street like this in the middle of the night?’

‘Some office cleaner going home?’

‘Dressed like she is? Get out of it. Not even a black would go charring in a get-up like that.’

‘It could have been a racist thing, seeing how she’s black.’

‘It could have been a racist thing if she’d been white, these days. Skinheads, you mean? No chance. Those guys haven’t got the bottle for something like this. A good kicking, lobotomy with a baseball bat, that’s more their mark. No, this is a right do, something special, you can be sure of that. Not but what anyone will ask us. Plods on wheels, that’s all we are. Hey up, here they come. What a racket. Still, it gives us warning. Straighten your tie and get ready to click your heels.’

‘Wonder who’ll be in charge?’

‘Makes no odds to us, but my money’s on old Foxie.’

‘DCI Fox? Well, he may be an oddball, but at least he treats uniforms like they were real people. Why him, though?’

‘Think about it. He’s coming up to retirement. If he cracks it, he won’t be around very long to bask in the glory. If he doesn’t, he’s the one on the wrong end of the tabloids’ editorials. Either way, the top brass can’t lose.’

It was true that Detective Chief Inspector John Fox behaved no more off-handedly towards subordinates than to his equals and superiors. But this was not out of any democratic sentiment, let alone affection. Fox liked nobody very much, though the conclusion in his official psychological profile that he liked himself least of all was quite inaccurate. He simply felt it saved time to keep distinctions of rank and the friction that went with them to a minimum: why complicate things with avoidable extras?

Such a philosophy was alien to his sounding-board - confidant was not the word. Sergeant Dunphy was equally contemptuous of the uniforms on the beat and the yobbos in the charge rooms, between whom he thought with each passing year there was less and less difference. The trouble with Fox’s good qualities was that they were perilously close to his bad ones. Dunphy was not a great reader of novels - what fictions could compare to the facts of a policeman’s life? - but whenever he brooded over the persona of his boss a line from some Yank writer came into his head: God will forgive us our vices but what will he make of our virtues? There were many who thought Fox reeked of bullshit, but Dunphy was very much one of the old school when it came to this: properly applied, bullshit is the glue that keeps everything from the country as a whole to a police station stuck together.

This substance was not absent from the seminar they were having in Fox’s famously impersonal office with the pathologist Edwin Scrimshaw, a character almost as cadaverous as the specimens he had on his slab.

‘Bruises on the lower jaw and left side of the face,’ intoned Scrimshaw, without preamble as always. ‘The throat was as well cut as a throat can be. The large vessels of the neck were severed on both sides. All the tissues down to the vertebrae were completely destroyed by one massive circular stroke. There is one deep jagged wound in the abdomen, also several gashes, all pointing downwards. And some large rips, left to right. The killer was probably a southpaw, though it wouldn’t do to be absolutely certain about that.’

‘Any sign of sexual activity?’ Dunphy asked, after it had become clear that Fox wasn’t going to.

Scrimshaw permitted himself a marginal shift in expression, his version of a smile. ‘For heaven’s sake, man, your docket said that the girl was a prostitute. Alice Jones, several convictions for soliciting. When would she not have been sexually active? As far as I could tell, yes, she had had intercourse not long before she died. Several times, in fact. Vaginal and anal. But frankly, so what? The killer may or may not have been one of the inseminators. Always assuming it’s a he, which in some quarters would nowadays be regarded as sexist.’

‘Well,’ Dunphy said stoutly, ‘I don’t believe any woman would do that to another one. Anyway, I suppose the next step is to ask our new friend the police computer for its opinion.’

Scrimshaw flapped a bony hand, not a pretty sight. ‘You can run it through as often as you like, but I’ll wager there’s not been an MO like this in London since dear old Jack the Ripper who, by the way, has been surmised by at least one historian to have been Jill the Ripper, specifically a psychopathic midwife in drag.’

‘And who disposed of his or her first victim on the night of August thirty-first, 1888, in what is now Durward Street in the parish of Whitechapel. The same date and place as our Alice Jones.’

Scrimshaw did not quite succeed in not looking put out. When it comes to knowing just when to enter a conversation and take it over, you can’t touch him, thought Dunphy with his customary mixture of admiration and frustration. I could have said that, he rebuked himself. I saw that bit on the BBC documentary about the Ripper on the box the other night, before switching over to the football match. Fox doesn’t even have a television set. It’s all in the filing cabinet in his head. Another advantage of a university degree.

‘In Jack’s day, Durward Street was known as Buck’s Row. It runs East to West from Brady Street to Vallance Road, Baker’s Row then. The body of Mary Ann Nichols, or Polly as she was known, was found in front of a stable yard gate between the Board School and a residential terrace, across from an ornamental brick house which was shamefully demolished as recently as 1990. What we’ve just heard from Edwin, as I’m sure he intended us to recognise, is pretty well the same post-mortem report as the one done on Polly by...’

Fox paused, allowing Scrimshaw to get back in. ‘Dr Rees Ralph Llewellyn. Welsh, obviously. Never mind, he knew his onions as well as his leeks. Interesting chap, in a way.’

Scrimshaw stopped as decisively as he had begun. Clearly, he was not going to divulge in what way Dr. Rees Ralph Llewellyn had been of interest. That suited Dunphy very well. But the fox was by now far ahead of the rabbit.

‘So, what have we here? Amazing coincidence or anniversary present? Just to be on the safe side, you’d better get them to put out the word around Whitechapel that the girls should be extra careful on September the eighth. Especially around Hanbury Street.’

‘Hanbury Street? Where’s that exactly?’

‘It runs through Spitalfields and Mile End New Town from Commercial Street to near Vallance Road. That’s where he did in the second one. Annie Chapman. At number twenty-nine. A cat’s meat shop in those days. There’s a hotel on it now...’

‘Not a lot of difference, then.’

Fox did not react to this Scrimshavian epigram. ‘They used to say Annie’s ghost haunted the site. You might wonder why the other girls haven’t been back the same way. I mean, poor old Annie was bad enough, head nearly cut off, stomach slashed to bits, kidneys ripped out and placed on her shoulder, uterus and most of down there hacked out...But even that doesn’t compare with number four, Catherine Eddowes, on September the thirtieth, not to mention Mary Jane Kelly, November ninth. He really had fun with Mary Jane. Trapped her in her room at a doss house on Dorset Street. They called it Dosset Street. A rough place, even by Victorian standards. Doesn’t exist any more. I believe it’s all built over with extensions to Spitalfields Market and multi-storey car parks. Anyway, he cornered Mary Jane in her room where there was no one to disturb him, so he had all the time in the world to get his jollies.’

‘What did he do to her?’ Dunphy had deduced from the recital that number three wasn’t worth asking about.

‘What didn’t he do, more like? It’s not something you want to hear. And if it is, not even Edwin would want to spell it out. Go read the post-mortem report, but not too soon after breakfast. It turned up at the Yard only a few years ago, nineteen eighty-seven, I think. A Dr Bond, wasn’t it?’

‘That’s right, Thomas Bond. Poor fellow committed suicide a few years later. Let’s just say, if chummy is a Ripper freak and he gets to number five, pray to God you’re not the one to find her.’

‘A nutter. That’s all we need.’

‘It might be a one-off. The nicest people can do the nastiest things. You just have to push the right buttons.’ Fox stood up to indicate that class was over. ‘But given all the circumstances, we may very well be in nutter-land. In which case, we’ll soon be getting a phone call or letter.’

‘I am down on whores and shant quit ripping them,’ proclaimed Scrimshaw. Dunphy looked at him; Fox did not. ‘That’s the message Jack is supposed to have sent to the London Central News Agency, two days before Catherine Eddowes was killed. He missed the apostrophe out of shan’t. Very modern. These days, I dare say he would have sent in a fax or something.’

‘I expect you know about the Irishman who sent poison-pen letters by e-mail?’ Dunphy, who had a touch of Celtic blood in him, concealed his annoyance.

The message duly turned up the next day. The words stood out clearly across the centre of an ordinary-sized sheet of white paper: THEIR BEGINNINGS ARE YOUR END.

‘Printed out from a word-processor. Gone are the good old days of the green Penguin detective stories in which the jumpy ‘e’ on an old Remington gives the killer away.’

‘And it came in without a stamp.’ Dunphy did not want a history of the technology of anonymous communications.

‘Either he’s heard about saliva match-ups or the bugger’s too mean to put his hand in his pocket for twenty-two pee.’

‘This message? Is it some smart-alec quotation? Or a kind of code, maybe?’

‘I haven’t the foggiest idea,’ said Fox, almost cheerfully. ‘No use giving ourselves a headache over it yet. Just have to wait and see, as Asquith used to say.’

The Whitechapel girls may well have been more than usually nervous on the eighth of September, but very few of them were deterred from going about their business: their chemical addictions or their pimps saw to that. It didn’t matter. No woman died in Ripperesque circumstances that night, not in Hanbury Street or anywhere else in the British Isles. ‘Well, that’s one blessing, I suppose, if he holds to it.’

‘He will. Chummy may or may not be a nutter, but he’s obviously got his battle plan worked out. That message of his, whatever it means, talks about more than one. According to the reports, there were no murders of any kind last night. He was, of course, responsible for a lot of time and money spent on those extra patrols in the area. Whether that gives him any satisfaction, I neither know nor care. Until something else happens, we’ll be like him and bide our time. No shortage of normal business, after all.’

A week later, the body of a woman was stumbled upon by a returning resident in the secluded Kensington mews in which they both lived. Loelia Trench. Forty-three. Something in Customer Affairs at Harrods.‘Battered very enthusiastically on the head with the traditional blunt instrument. But no damage to the body, no knife work of any kind. And no sexual hanky-panky. Never had any, in fact. Scrimshaw says she was still a virgin, he can’t remember when he last had one of those up on his table. So, she was about as different as she could be from Alice Jones.’

A point made in its own laconic way by the second message: YOU CAN FORGET THE RIPPER.

‘How kind of him to help us with our enquiries,’ said Fox in a silky tone.

Then on successive nights a hotel receptionist called Oona Parish had both her eyes pierced with the hat-pin that was thoughtfully left in the right one, while club singer Patsie Reardon was strangled by her own long blonde hair (‘Has he been reading Browning?’ Fox asked - Dunphy said nothing, his policy when he’d nothing to say) and unemployed Edna Fromm was fished out of the river with a gag in her mouth and her hands tied behind her back.

‘A patternless pattern.’ Fox’s remark got them no further forward than the three corresponding messsages. Oona’s passing was confirmed by FIRST THINGS FIRST; Patsie got GO STRAIGHT DOWN; Edna drew a more elaborate techno-obituary: WHAT DO YOU DO WITH DISCS AND MODEMS?

‘I know what I’d like to do with them,’ growled Dunphy, twiddling a Luddite fountain pen in his left hand. ‘Not to mention these journalists.’ As the larger of the two patrolmen on Durward Street had predicted, the tabloids were in full cry. Given the absence of any obvious trend in the killings, the failure of chummy to add the requisite sexual frisson, and the more than usually curt press releases, Fox had entertained good hopes of avoiding this hunt. He wasn’t to know that various hirelings of Fleet Street, or Wapping as it now was, had been tipped off by one Edwin Scrimshaw who needed to supplement his corpse-carver’s income so as to finance his pursuit of the very much alive and beautiful body of the woman he’d long been eyeing at his local, and who had nourished a dislike of Fox ever since the latter narrowly defeated him in the contentious finale of a Trivial Pursuits tournament organised for some charity or other - Fox had questioned the official answer as given on the card and an Order of the Brown Nose judge had ruled in his favour.

‘That’s five. If he’d been a Ripper fan, that would be it.’

‘Unless he wants to show he can go one better. Or two. Or ten.’

This dark speculation was partly vindicated when, contrary to routine, the next message preceded the event: ONE MORE. ALL SHOULD THEN BE CLEAR.

The extra body was the shapely one of Xanthe Petropolou who served moussaka and chips along with other hybrid delicacies to the appreciative patrons of her parents’ Akropolis cafe on Kilburn High Street. Whatever had been held over her face had suffocated the life out of it.

As promised, this was indeed the last one. But things were still the opposite of clear. Whatever secret was in the chummy communiqués remained hidden.

‘Maybe it’s all one big joke.’

Then came another letter, the same only different: handwritten, with stamp attached and postmark clear:

Un couple de renards bouleversait la neige,
Piétinant l’orée du terrier nuptial;
Au soir le dur amour révèle à leurs parages
La soif cuisante en miettes de sang.

This French made Dunphy pull a face and mutter something about Euro-nutters, especially after Fox with some help from his Harrap’s dictionary had come up with a translation:

A pair of foxes churned up the snow,
Trampling the approach to the nuptial earth.
In the evening, their harsh love revealed around them
Their burning thirst in gobbets of blood.

‘What’s all that about, then?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Fox, who did. ‘But I’ll be out of town tomorrow, so you can hold the fort.’

The next morning saw Fox lurching from Paddington to Oxford in a train that moved in fits and starts with a lengthy and unexplained delay near Reading. It was the first time he’d been back to Cowley’s Latin Quarter since he came down all those years ago with a starred First in Classics, a distinction that in the force had brought him nothing but repetitive ribbing: whenever there was a ram-raid in Camden Town’s ‘Little Cyprus’ or a knifing in Greek Street, the cry would go up, ‘Send for Fox.’

He’d telephonically prearranged to meet Ronald Fox who preferred the college porter not know he was being visited by a policeman all the way from London in an old pub they both knew down an obscure lane running away - who could blame it? - from St. Aldates. Being decrepit and unendorsed by student taste, it served good beer and outstandingly thick sandwiches.

Despite the passage of time, neither Fox needed a green carnation or obtruded copy of Greece & Rome to identify the other. Their name did not relate them, the vulpine homonym was just a fluke, it was their undergraduate history that provided the links. They had read the same subject, lived in the same college, and for a season shared the same bed until John Fox had put an end to that just before he sensed Ronald Fox was going to, after which John Fox had never been known to sleep with any one of any sex.

Such points as they wanted to come to were reached at once. ‘Why the French letter?’
‘René Char seemed appropriate. I’ve been following your fortunes in the public prints with some interest.’

‘What about your letter games? I may not keep up with the Classical Quarterly, but even these days I would have expected to see something in The Times about the man who tracked down the real Homer.’

‘Not as such. It’s all teaching now. Has been for years. Ever since That Woman’s cuts. Wouldn’t we all like to cut her up one fine night? No, I’ve become better at setting problems than solving them. You remember Voltaire? Judge a man by the questions he asks, not the answers he gives. Still, I thought I might be able to give you a nudge. One kind of sleuth to another, as it were. I assume you have brought copies with you?’

The brown manilla envelope containing them was handed over.

‘No promises, but I’ll be in London the day after tomorrow. What is your address? You won’t want me coming to the station. Be at home around ten p.m.’

John Fox was. Ronald Fox did not come or call. There were two visitors, though. When he answered the door bell, the unexpected one, a tall blonde young woman who looked as if she’d stepped off Page Three, marched past him into the room. When her coat came off, it was spectacularly clear that she had nothing on underneath. Not that a fully-dressed female would have been any less a novelty in his flat. Assuming a tigressy crouch, she proceeded to do seven jumps, as impressive for what they did for her as the way she did them. Every rise into the air was accompanied by the shouting of a letter - it was all very different from how they’d been taught the alphabet at Beacon Street Mixed Infants, Fox thought:
Give me an A!
Give me an L!
Give me an O!
Give me a P!
Give me an E!
Give me an X!
What have we got?

What Fox had got, apart from his answer, after she resumed her coat and exited with a wordlessly cheery wave, was the job of explaining this to Sergeant Dunphy who was standing behind the just-open bedroom door, already at a loss as to why after all these years he should have received his maiden invitation round to the boss’ home.

The stripogrammer was hardly out of the place when it was established via a telephone exchange with the sleepily grumpy college porter that Dr. Fox, who had taken early retirement, was gone for good, having travelled to Heathrow very early that morning to catch a flight for Buenos Aires where he was intending to marry and settle down with that graduate student of his who came from there.

‘So, he was actually in London today. Well, he never said in as many words that he would come to see me.’

Dunphy, who’d been given a carefully edited version of events old and new, only grunted. He was far more interested in his superior’s interpretation of the unusual spelling lesson they’d just had.

‘Not hard, when it’s served up on a plate like that. Though he did play straight with us. They’re simply the initials of each girl’s first name, in the order in which they were killed. A for Alice, L for Loelia, and so on. They add up to ALOPEX, which is Greek for fox. I expect I would have got round to it eventually, but it’s a long time since I thought Hellenically.’

‘I suppose there’s no way we can get him back?’ said Dunphy, who never had.

‘Shouldn’t think so. You know what those countries are like when it comes to refugees and extradition. Especially if he’s got himself a native wife. Look at Ronnie Biggs in Brazil. And we’ve hardly been the Argies’ blue-eyed boys since Port Stanley. No, we’re scuppered, and he knows it. Still, the killing is over, and it’ll be yesterday’s headlines when I bow out, so if he was trying to spoil that for me, he’s only partly succeeded.’

‘You think he killed six girls just to mess up your retirement?’

‘There’s rather more to it than that. We were at Oxford together; that explains a lot. I’m sure he’s never forgiven me for winning the Hertford and Ireland over him. There’s no need to look at me as though I were Inspector Morse. Those are the two top prizes for classics men. Then there was some personal business which we needn’t go into. I know after all this time revenge was a very cold dish for him to eat, but cold food can be as tasty as hot, and he had to wait for his own retirement to be able to skip off to safety like that. No, we’ll let him go quietly. That way, at least he’ll lose the oxygen of publicity, which should be a big disappointment for him.’

Nothing could be done officially. But thanks to an Interpol contact who owed a favour, it wasn’t hard to pinpoint where in Buenos Aires the fugitive had settled down to marital bliss. Then Fox went to the family of the last victim, and gave them such particulars as were needed. The father was too ill, but his wife and two other daughters were able and very willing. Fox dug deeply into his own holiday fund. He hadn’t to wait long before the stipulated postcard came to him under the special name he used at a central London poste restante for clandestine communications. It showed a local artist’s vision of an English fox hunt, indicating that traditional Argentine anglophilia had not been completely erased, or was it just a left-over in some street corner kiosk?

What mattered was its message: FURIES RULE OKAY.

When it came to blood vengeance, the Greeks were hard to beat. That was one of many things he and his rival had learned about them at Oxford, and some of the Cypriot gang slayings in north London had reinforced that image. He trusted the women to have announced to Ronald Fox who had sent them before they did whatever it was they did, first to his new bride and then to himself. They also posted separately the relevant clipping from a Buenos Aires English-language newspaper. It had been reticent on detail, but shudderingly quoted the policeman who found the bodies that he would never have believed any human being could do such things to another.

Now retired, John Fox has dug out his old Oxford Classical Texts and spends his time combing and recombing the Iliad and Odyssey for acrostic clues to the author, the perpetrator as it were, of these works. So far, no luck. But he has the time and the patience, though his few acquaintances and fewer friends are finding him boring to the point of obsessional on the subject.
Dunphy is still Sergeant Dunphy. He gets on well enough with his new boss, who is Fox neither by name nor nature. He has not retired. He doesn’t need to, for the tumour that has sat happily near his brain for years is now fast expanding its living space, though apart from his doctor no one else including Mrs. Dunphy knows this. In his desk at home, along with his will, there is a letter addressed to his former superior. Dunphy is only sorry he won’t be there to see Fox’s face when he reads it and learns that his sergeant, not his Oxford rival, was the bumper-off of those women. Not that he is a nutter. They all deserved it. Alice Jones had stolen his wallet after he’d engaged her professional services. Loelia Trench was snootily unhelpful when he complained about the failure of one of Harrods’ green vans to deliver a wedding anniversary present on the right day, with consequent spousal aggravation that he could have done without. Oona Parish had refused a room to Dunphy and the woman with him who was very obviously not Mrs. Dunphy. Patsie Reardon had told him to get lost when he asked her to have a drink with him after her act. Edna Fromm’s last job had been a Tesco’s cashier; he’d got her sacked for the embarrassment she’d caused with the mistaken accusation of slipping a tin of cling peaches into his overcoat pocket, but decided that wasn’t enough. Xanthe Petropolou had inverted a bowl of bean soup into his lap on his first and last visit to the Akropolis cafe.

Yes, he wrote, or rather processed, all the messages. His scorn of the new technology is for station ears only, partly to get him out of the increasing number of time-consuming computer file searching jobs handed down from above. There are plenty of places in London where you can go and pay in cash by the hour for on-the-spot use of a machine. The rigmarole of the clues came out of the programmes he pretended to ignore when Mrs. Dunphy watched them on the television. He’d done the Ripper bit, which had made him vomit, and the rest by design to wind up the boss as much as possible. All that business about foxes and Oxford was - what was that word the ghoul Scrimshaw liked to use? - serendipity. He hadn’t had the faintest notion that the victims’ initials added up to Fox in a dead Euro-language.

3 comments:

socalledauthor said...

What a story-- I love the details and descriptions. And the ending... well, I'm still wrapping my brain around that. Nice job!
--Clair Dickson

Anonymous said...

Wow.

I escaped into a unique place. Didn't want it to end.

Thanks.

Patricia J. Hale
patriciahale.blogspot.com

paulbrazill said...

just discovered this gem!