Sunday, January 25, 2009

Point Murder - Ann Whipple

Point Murder

A mild, cool, pleasant day after rain, with high fleecy clouds and smooth sheets of grey retreating to the east; just before eight o’clock, the sun was well over the green-filmed ridge, its outline sturdy enough behind the thinning drifts of cloud . A small silver car driven by a woman in her fifties passed from the cave of a garage into the fair light. Alice Perrin had not slept well, and getting ready had been full of irritations and false starts; she was more than usually on edge, though “on edge” was a frequent enough mode with her.

How many hundreds of times, she addressed the sliding automatic gate; how many thousands? The sky, how many times? Never before just this sky; but still the same sky, time after time after time. Ah, it was lovely. Oh, it was unbearable. The grass, the pink-flowering plums, the prunus and the yellow and orange and white Iceland poppies, the very daisies and poppies of the waste places. The doves, the geese, the gulls. Lovely, lovely, lovely. Dear God, the world was new and lovely and old and awful–English daisies! Iceland poppies! Canada geese! She hoped she would get through the day.

The rain had deepened some of the chuckholes, and she skirted them with her customary thought that to the uninitiated she must resemble a drunken driver. But here, where was anyone uninitiated? Theirs was a small community, set apart, seldom blundered upon by strangers.

On her left, by some trick of clouded light, Angel Island reared a sooty blue against the pale water of the Bay; then beyond, the headlands and Tamalpais reposed, green in the sun, against blue sky and light clouds. Nothing would happen on this trip, nothing ever did; she would hear her Mozart or Scarlatti–ugh, really, sometimes his stuff could be more nerve-wracking than some of Vivaldi’s–and admire all the burgeoning and blooming and flight and light, deplore the fading–for Spring leaves early in California, and green changes to gold and brown in a twinkling. February, still, and she was glad of that. The park, around the turn, with the damp steepness of the headland on her right. As always, she would arrive at the station, mount to the platform, and sit through her brief train-ride; think her thoughts.

She shuddered. She had forgotten, allowed herself to forget, what she had seen the day before. Late Sunday she had climbed that hill and hiked around the high ledge, vaguely hoping there would still be some boletes not tunneled by worms. She had called the police when she got home, being a good citizen. Though she had not been sure, in the front of her mind, she had been sure enough in her belly: a body, wrapped in a quilt. It had to be. The police had proved, as she had foreseen, kindly and phlegmatic. That had been that, except for her shakiness long after the call was over.

Now, just beyond the dark green jutting of scrub oak and toyon, were parked a police van and three squad cars. The gate to the fire road, she saw, was open. She wanted to stop, wanted to know, wanted to see–but another urgency pressed her foot more firmly onto the gas: to be elsewhere fast. She hit a number of the potholes and was not quite calm, despite the lovely light and the lovely vistas and the music (it was Brahms, in fact), even when she had passed the last of the park and got into the tunnel that led to town.

At the office–she ran, single-handedly, a small publishing company that produced limited-edition books on art, botany, ornithology, history, and the like, and was funded by a well-to-do old queen (his term) who lived in Florence–there was a polite but firm message on the machine to call Inspector Mullen of the local police.

This she did, and he asked when he might see her. She was prompt; any time that day would be fine. He promised to be with her in half an hour (her domain was two towns away from her home). Until then she could not think or work. The cup of tea she made for herself tasted metallic, so she threw it away.

“Miss Perrin? How do you do. I’m Inspector Aaron Mullen.”

“Mrs., actually, Inspector. I’m a widow. How do you do? Please come in.”

He was tall, attractive, fifty-something, with graying dark hair and serious dark eyes under a heavy brow. He was in plain clothes, and Alice remarked that they were not the usual glaring and unmistakable plain clothes of the usual policeman–a much nicer-than-normal tweed jacket, a tattersall shirt, well-creased gray slacks and excellent brown shoes, just a little in want of polish. No tie. She thought that they ought to understand one another well enough; she was most likely about his age, and she was herself graying and tweedy, though she was conscious that her excellent Italian pumps were nicely polished. Her sense was that he, like herself, understood the surfaces of things but knew how to disregard them as well.

Inspector Mullen had looked at her and then about him. The rooms were not opulent, but they were pleasing–dear old Morgan Evers had stipulated that she order everything of the best, and his own cultivated taste, when he had visited once or twice, had pronounced the results more than satisfactory. Copies of the firm’s books, all limited editions beautifully designed, filled the protected shelves of the far wall, but she received visitors in a lighter area, Eastern in feeling, with some fine blue-and-white porcelain on shelves and tables, Mughal and Caucasian carpets on the polished pale floor, filmy plain curtains over the long windows, and comfortable chairs in pale leather. Beyond was her workroom, with simple, utilitarian desk, machines, files, tables, chairs, and cupboards.

He explained that he wanted more information about the reason for her call of the day before; could they sit down? Of course, and would he care for anything? He declined. She indicated one of the big chairs, and sat opposite. She was at her ease; policemen did not intimidate her, and she had a fair experience of the world in general. Her work had introduced her to men and women of all kinds in many corners–worldly printers, dreamy designers, worldly authors, impractical authors, busy distributors, demanding publicists, conceited reporters, competent reporters. She had learned to keep the edgy Alice down when occasion demanded suavity.

“I should tell you that I saw a van this morning as I came to work, so I suppose your people checked out what I reported.”

“Yes. More of that later. Please tell me now the whole story of your experience.”

He had a pad of forms and had already filled in a few of the blanks with a nondescript ballpoint.

“It was about three-thirty, and I wanted air and exercise. I hiked up the hill from the path that is nearest my building, to the top, then took one of the side-tracks that lead to the summit. I admired the view a bit, then went on down by the path that skirts the edge, the northwesterly side. It’s pretty woodsy there, and shady. But I was peering into the woods because I hoped there might still be a few wild mushrooms–there sometimes are, even this late.”

“Isn’t that dangerous?”

“Not if you are very timid about it, as I am. I don’t pick anything I don’t know.”

“I think the county gets some poisoning cases, most every year.”

“I’m sure, and I hope I won’t ever be one–or any friend of mine. Nasty way to go.”

He made a few more entries on his form. “You said earlier that you were a widow. I have your address. You live there alone?”

“Oh, yes.”

“How long?”

“Alone there since my husband died, three years ago; eight years before that, with him.”

“Nice place.”

He spoke as if he knew the area in a workaday way.

“Nice enough. Convenient. A place you don’t have to think about, and everyone in the complex seems decent.”

He checked some boxes on his form. “And your work here? I see it’s called–what? Folium?”

“Yes, Folium Editions. It’s essentially the hobby business of an elderly man who lives abroad. We publish fine editions of important books that are no longer widely available in the original–illustrated natural history chiefly. We add notes and introductions and so on to update them. We almost break even–some years a little better than that.”

“Pretty costly books?”

“Oh, yes,” she answered cheerfully. “They cost the earth to produce; you’d be surprised. But there’s a market.”

“I suppose. So it is for most things, I guess. Oddly enough. You’ve been here how long?”

“Fifteen years.”

“Like it?”

“It’s ideal for me. I’m virtually independent. Mr. Evers is intelligent and generous. We visit back and forth quite often, and staying at a beautiful villa outside Florence, with everything done for one, is not my idea of hardship. When my husband was alive, he came along–Arthur loved Italy and could roam about on his own while Mr. Evers and I attended to our tiny bits of business.”

“But you don’t produce the books here?”

“No. There are surprisingly many excellent printing firms in the Bay Area. Sometimes we need color work done abroad, though–Italy or the Orient these days. We try to stick with local firms for the sake of quality-control.”

The Inspector gave the small smile that indicates a return to former subjects. “So you went out to look for mushrooms. Then?”

“That’s all I did, really. But as I was returning to the trail that goes back down the hill, I looked up into a hollow on my right–I suppose it would be southeast of the actual trail. And I saw this–bundle. It bothered me, because of the size. I thought of investigating.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Because it was very steep, and I hadn’t brought a stick. It was pretty overgrown, too. And I was afraid.”

“Were you.”

He said this not in great surprise, but still as if he had not expected her to be.

“Yes, I was. It was getting dark, and the place is lonely, and I just didn’t want to see anything awful. It was far too still.... I thought of going up and around and then down the slope to look at it, but that was steep, too, and the area between the trail at that point and where the thing was is very thickly wooded, and full of poison oak. In fact, I wonder how it got there at all. Very tricky for anyone....”

“Please believe that I think you did the right thing in the circumstances.”

She thanked him gravely, but it seemed to her that she had been cowardly, and she kept silence for a moment, considering her action. No, the place and the time had been too much for her, and there was no sense in regret.

“Well,” she said.

“Please describe for me exactly what you saw.”

“It was just a bundle, a quilt wrapping something. It was pinkish, with tan and white flowers, and I could tell by the piping that it had been wrapped around whatever it was at an angle–it was obviously a large quilt, and whatever was inside must have been not much more than five feet tall–or long–and small in proportion. Oh, God.”

“It’s OK. Tell me, was it wet?”

“Wet? No, it looked perfectly dry.”

“You could tell that even in the dim light?”

She thought a moment. “Yes, I could. I stood some moments and looked at it, and there is something different in the way a wet quilt lies from a dry one, as well as in the colors. Anyone could tell, I’d say.”

He wrote some more, then looked up again, and their eyes held. He almost did not need to say what he said, but she knew that he must. “But it had rained yesterday morning, right?”

“Right,” she breathed. “Until about nine. Then started again about midnight last night.”

“Yes. I may as well tell you–the searchers found what you described, and pretty easily, too, despite the terrain and all–at about seven last night. We have some good lights, and there were even two men with us who knew the parks. It wasn’t easy to get to it, as you rightly said–but we went up by the fire road. The quilt was still quite dry–a little damp underneath from the wet grass, and a little dewy on top, but basically dry.”

They sat for a while in silence, and then Alice looked up. She would not ask, she decided.

“It was a body. A young woman. Naked except for a T-shirt, and strangled.”

Alice rose and walked to the window. The whole story seemed to her pathetic and dreary and sordid, and she knew nothing of it beyond these bare facts, and her own memory of a shapeless heap in a wintry park. The realities would elude her forever, she felt sure–whatever passion had led to the killing, the details of the life that was taken. She thought of Arthur, quickly dead from heart failure, but lost to her forever in a moment that stood now in her consciousness like an impassable rock in a roadway. She had felt so dead herself since then, sometimes almost at the end of her rope, but in fact she was alive and could act, could climb steep hills and make useful telephone calls. Such muddle and stupidity.

“What kind of person, may I ask?”

The Inspector seemed surprised that she should ask. “Pretty,” he said, “despite everything, surely pretty. Brunette, slim, smallish. As you guessed, not much over five feet. In good health. They’ll do the usual tests, of course, including DNA. Then we may know more. Nothing but the T-shirt, and that as anonymous as you can get. Did you see anyone on your walk?”

She shook her head. “No one on the hill, not a soul. It was eerie enough, but I suppose my taste for solitary winter walks is not shared by many people. Still, I wondered, I felt uneasy. Watched. That’s not uncommon, is it, when one’s alone?”

“But go back to before. Did you see anyone as you approached the trail up the hill?”

“On the level where the railroad tracks used to be, people walk their dogs. I think I saw several people out, mostly heading back to the condominiums or in that general direction, to the houses across the street. No one I knew or recognized.. I think they were mostly women, too. I remember someone with a black Lab and someone else with a tiny terrier–the dogs seemed more vivid than the owners, but I am pretty sure those two were women.”

“Then as you came down again?”

“No one. Except maybe.... There’s that very steep part just at the bottom of the trail, and it’s very muddy and slippery there, so I was coming down rather awkwardly, hanging onto the brush to steady myself. I stopped, and I did notice that someone was leaving the far end of that level field, the dog-walking place. It surprised me because I hadn’t seen anyone from up above, and I would have noticed–it’s all so open and clear there–so I wondered where he came from. He turned up into our apartment complex, I remember, and then I lost him, and forgot about him, too.”

“Did he have a dog?”

She shook her head. “I’m pretty sure he didn’t. But he was moving at a leisurely pace, not running away from anything. Maybe the dog was ahead of him–people do let them off the leash there sometimes.”

“ From what you saw, what can you tell me about him?”

“Well, I thought it might be Larry Dykstra–about his build, and Larry always wears that big-shouldered kind of mackinaw when he walks his dog–a setter. The hat was like Larry’s, too–do many people wear those broad-brimmed Australian hats?”


“Larry is the condominium association’s lawyer,” she added. “And there are other ways up and down that hill. Other steep trails down on the north side, very wooded ones.”

“What about cars?”

“Cars? Whizzing past almost all the time. I didn’t notice anything special. Oh, but there was! A green SUV was parked just at the far end of the field. People often park there when the yacht club lot is full, and I think there was a regatta on Sunday, but the green van was the only one still there when I came down from the hill.”

He asked her for details of the van, but she had to confess that they all looked alike to her–“dark green, newish, in good repair” was the best she could do. “Those tinted windows,” she added.

Inspector Mullen rose. “I think that’s about all we need for now, unless you can think of anything that might help us. I’m going to ask you to look at a picture of the girl–woman, she wasn’t more than twenty-five, but she looked girlish, being so small and slim. I’ll call you about that–could you drop by the station later today, when you’re free?”

She laughed. “Of course, Inspector. My time here is very much my own; Mr. Evers doesn’t check on me or make me punch any clocks, and all the authors and printers are scribbling away happily at their computers or marking up proofs in their studios, without any help from me just now. Tell me where and when.”

She spent the rest of the afternoon studying the re-designed title page for a Victorian “language of flowers” book. The printer had provided a choice of ten cuts, all exquisite, and the decision was difficult. She finally telephoned him, and they discussed each one in depth. They needed something in keeping, but did not want to compete with the color lithographs of the text, to be faithfully reproduced by modern printing methods. When they had finally decided on a posy that suggested the Victorian without excess, Alice felt too ill at ease about her forthcoming interview to do anything more. She made some tea, but, as before, it did not taste good to her, and she was presently locking up the office to go to meet Inspector Mullen.

Aaron Mullen let his work absorb him; he found the complex routines as satisfying as math, but livelier because of the human component. Still, the known stood against the unknown, and the task was to complete the equation. The small, sordid murder at the Point, of course, was not the only thing he had to deal with for the rest of his busy shift, but he gave a good deal of time to it, delegating certain tasks and going after other necessary items of information himself.

Late in the day, a few minutes before Alice Perrin’s appointment, he gave himself a break, and over coffee thought about her. He was puzzled by his own reaction to her–he felt there ought to have been some spark between them. Had her insistence upon her widowhood been the turn-off, or her bookishness? He was divorced himself, about as long as she had been widowed, and he was fond of books in a way–he read history and sociology as a mild recreation. He admired her fair, classic good looks and her air of candor. But no urge to reveal himself to her or to draw her out had come to him, and he wondered where the cool transparent barrier between them had its origin. In the circumstances? Possibly, but not necessarily; he seldom met people like her in the course of his work, so the novelty might have been an excitement–but no. He wondered if they would get to know one another better, if something might come of their association in this crime that superficially involved them. Hardly to tell, as Arnold Chen, his Chinese sidekick, often said. She would soon arrive.

He thought her far more nervous than in the morning. “Please don’t take this too hard,” he said, and she nodded.

The photograph was so gruesome that Alice shut her eyes at it; how infinitely worse the reality must have been, she thought. She was afraid she might be sick, but gave herself a few moments to repair her calm and courage. Then she looked at it, carefully and long.

“Inspector Mullen,” she said, and looked long, too, at his disciplined and intelligent features.

“You recognize her?”

“It’s difficult, after one meeting, and that some time ago. But yes. I think her name is Rosie Marler. A San Francisco girl. I’ll tell you how I met her.”

The Inspector had put aside the picture; they faced one another across his desk.

“Briefly, it was at a party for a book by a friend of a friend, and this young woman was the elderly author’s helper–the book was his rather exaggerated memoirs of his wild Parisian youth. I gathered that this Rosie made her living by doing odd jobs for people like André Michaud–paying bills and clearing up generally and being paid under the table. Also by modeling–she was quite charming.”

“This was when?”

“Perhaps four years ago.”

“You and your husband were at this party? Where was it?”

“Yes, we went together–in fact, my husband had known André slightly. I.... Yes. It wasn’t long after the party that my husband died. André also. Quite a little epidemic of dying.” Alice stopped to turn away and overcome a working sob; Inspector Mullen waited in silence.

“You asked where it was. The party was at an art gallery on Post Street. I can find the name for you. But I’m fairly sure that Rosie lived in the same neighborhood as the author, as André–somewhere on Russian Hill.”

“How did you come by the information about this person?”

“I chatted with her–she was sweet. I chatted with André, too, and he sang her praises. He was a dear old flirt.”

“I thought you said this author was ‘a friend of a friend’?”

“That’s basically true–but we actually knew him a little, Arthur and I. Not well, just to have a coffee or a drink someplace casually–Arthur and I used to like to go to North Beach, and he would turn up. We’d never been to his apartment, and he certainly never visited us. It was our friend Carol Ross who asked us to the book party–she’s a journalist. She knew Rosie, too, and she told me two things about her.”

Mullen prompted her silently, but she took a moment. “That she was a model and that she was a meth head.”

Inspector Mullen did not say anything; he was aware of Alice’s eyes intently on him.

“It all puts me a good deal on the spot, I see,” she said at last.

“You on the spot? You make big leaps and make them fast.”

She smiled, but she was not happy. “It’s from reading too much fiction and taking too dim a view of human nature, a sad legacy from hard-boozing Calvinist parents.”

Although she spoke with little inflection, his eyes widened; he knew what she was talking about, but he seldom encountered it in this coolly contained form.

“I follow,” he said. “All too well.”

There might not be a spark, he thought, but sympathy was pulsing between them.

Aaron Mullen telephoned Mrs. Perrin the next day to say that the identification had been confirmed. The body to which she had pointed the way was that of Rosie Marler, who had not been seen by her Union Street roommate since Friday. Miss Marler’s older sister, a successful dress designer, had come to the East Bay and identified her positively.

“Is that Laurel Marler?”

“You know her, too?”

“I’ve just recalled meeting her at that same party. We chatted, but she was too stylish for me, and I didn’t get to know her. Does she shed any light...?”

“She says she hadn’t got together with her sister for several months. She confirmed what you told us, that Rosie used meth pretty consistently and that she made her living by modeling and odd jobs. She said that the work Rosie did for your author acquaintance was about the most solid and tame job she’d ever had. She said Michaud overpaid her–apparently he doted on her.”

“I can imagine. And the roommate? Did she–or he?–have any inkling for you?”

“No. They’d been coming and going without much contact lately. Sylvia Olin, her name is–works in a bookstore. She thought there might have been a modeling job, but she didn’t know anything. She was accustomed to Rosie’s not coming home at night a lot of the time.”

“Well, I hope you can get somewhere with this sad business, Mr. Mullen.”

“Thanks. We did find something that makes me want to ask you to look out for yourself.”


“Don’t be alarmed. An uncashed check to her from a person who lives in your building, one Michael Fitzgerald.”

“Michael Fitzgerald? But he’s....”

“An artist, I believe.”

“Yes. There are a lot of artists. The area has a history of it, going way back....”

She heard the sudden strain in her voice and worried that she might seem hysterical to him.

“I should have come by,” he said. “Sorry to upset you.”

“No, it’s just that he lives two doors from me, very polite and private, and he’s quite a good artist–we had a little show a while back. It doesn’t add up.”

“Well, I hope it doesn’t. But we’re going to talk to him all the same.”

“I see that you have to. But as to my looking out for myself–what a notion. I mean, I always do.”

“Keep it up,” he said, and they said good-bye.

“Inspector Mullen?”

The slight, fair man with the humorous wide mouth and tall brow did not look to Aaron Mullen entirely at his ease, but he did not look like the picture of guilt, either. He stepped back and invited the policeman into the apartment, which smelled agreeably like an artist’s studio. They went into the small tile-floored solarium overlooking a broad lawn in which pink-flowering plums flounced in the wind.

“I’m here to ask about Rosie Marler.”

“I wondered if you might be.”

They looked levelly at one another, and, though Fitzgerald’s face was grim enough, he was not afraid of anything.

“Why was that?”

“Well, I didn’t treat her too well, I know. But she was on some kind of drug and was really making a damned nuisance of herself. Still, I shouldn’t have just kicked her out–I could have at least given her a lift to BART or something. This place is pretty remote. A car is a necessity.”

“Suppose you tell me the whole story.”

“I’ve known her for a while–met her through another artist I know in San Francisco. She was short on work and called me a couple of times to ask if she could model for me. I felt sorry for her and said OK about a month ago. I picked her up and brought her here–my studio’s in there, and you can see it, and see the sketches I did of her. It just wasn’t working–she’s not my type, and she had this feverish way of chatting that drove me nuts. So I gave her a check and drove her back to BART and that was that as far as I was concerned. But not for her, it seems.”

Mullen interrupted. “The modeling session was when?”

“I can tell you from my checkbook.”

Michael Fitzgerald rose from the window seat and walked easily into the next room, then returned with his checkbook. He proffered it and Mullen saw the entry–$300 paid to Rosie Marler two weeks before the weekend of her death.

“And then?”

“Last Saturday she turned up at my door. She’d apparently walked all the way from the bus stop, which is well over a mile. I couldn’t make her out. She was manic. I was tired–I’d done a little art show up north and had just got in when she appeared. I hate to say it, but the idea was that she couldn’t get me out of her mind and so on. I didn’t like to be ungallant–we Fitzgeralds are known to be the soul of courtesy to all ladies; brought up that way, as you can imagine.”

He had dropped into a slight brogue for a moment, and the two men exchanged a look of amused understanding.

“I take it a red flag went up in the case of Miss Rosie Marler.”

“Bright red. So I just kidded around with her, and listened to her as best I could, but she wasn’t making a lot of sense. I finally decided that the best thing would be to feed her, so I rustled up something–I’m not a bad bachelor cook and bottle-washer–and opened some wine, thinking it might calm her down. It did. She passed out. I can’t say I wasn’t relieved. I tipped her over onto that couch and threw a cover over her, then went to bed myself.”

Mullen’s face worked slightly, and Fitzgerald looked a question at him, but the moment passed. “And?” Mullen prompted.

“I washed up, did the usual, went to bed myself–in there. I locked my door, God help me. She woke me up in the small hours having some kind of fit, pounding on the door and crying and carrying on. I tried to get her to calm down, but I’d never seen anything quite like it. Finally, about six o’clock, even though it wasn’t quite light, I just got fed up. She hadn’t undressed at all, and she was a little thing–so I just frog-marched her to the door and shoved her out. She banged a little bit, and I put my head out and said that if she did that one more minute, the guard would be on her, and that up those stairs and down the road was the best place for her. Sometimes when you get really fed up you can get a tone in your voice that even a total loony will hear. She heard, and she went.”

“So that was that.”

“Not a pretty story, I know. But that was that.”

Mullen sighed and the two men once again maintained a level and communicating regard.

“I’m inclined to believe you.”

“I should damn well hope so!” Fitzgerald said, color flaring up into his Viking face. “I’m not accustomed to having people doubt my word. What happened to the silly woman that gets you involved? She complain?”

“She got herself killed.”

The artist clenched his teeth and grimaced.

“I might have known. She was that damned silly. But I blame myself for sending her out alone–I suppose that’s when it happened, isn’t it?”

“We’re a little unclear on the time of death. Was it raining when you showed her the door–and the road?”

“No, it wasn’t. I wasn’t that pissed off, and if it had been raining, I would have bundled her into my car and driven her to the train. It wasn’t even that cold, and she had a coat. It did rain later, though, and I remember hoping she’d made it to the bus or whatever by that time. I’d been trying to get a little sleep, but after that sort of episode, who could? It was at least an hour or two later that the rain started. By the way, what led you to me at all? The check?”

“Yes. Will you show me the blanket you threw over her?”

The request surprised Fitzgerald, but he complied, bringing for the Inspector’s inspection a large knit throw of soft, silky wool in vibrant bluish reds and greens.

“Looks warm,” he said. “Elegant, too.”

“A gift from an admirer,” said Michael Fitzgerald, with the kind of wryness that discourages questions.

The policeman then asked to see the sketches he had made of Rosie Marler. There were four in charcoal on paper and one somewhat more finished piece in acrylic. To Aaron Mullen, they looked disspirited, almost like student work. He glanced at other sketches and canvases and saw far more life and sureness of technique in every one. The pretty little nude in her conventional poses had been simply an interruption in the life and work of Michael Fitzgerald, as far as his visitor could tell.

“Actually, I’d rather do still lifes and outdoor stuff,” the artist said. He pointed at a stack of canvases.

Mullen looked through these with growing admiration. They were local studies in several lights and several seasons, verging sometimes on the abstract, but always strong. There was one in which the pink and orange flowers of spring striped the slope in harsh bands of light and shadow. Such a subject, from the brush of a less secure artist, might have been sentimental, but the canvas had force. Another concentrated on tawny rock, with a thatch of dry grass and a limpid sky; the fast, strong, broad strokes of color let one feel the wind of the place.

“I like these,” he said, “despite my ignorance of art.”

“Thanks. I hoped you’d say that,” laughed Fitzgerald.

“Do I strike you as such a rube?”

“God, no. Just diffident about your areas of uncertainty–and a little conventional.”

Mullen was not nettled–he thought that Fitzgerald had described him justly enough. He hoped the artist would not take his next remark as vengeful.

“That’s about where we found her, up there.”

He pointed to a spot on the far right of the canvas with the rippling flowers.

Fitzgerald made a stifled sound that was half groan and half sigh. “God,” he said. “What am I supposed to think about that?”

Mullen shrugged. “Nothing, I suppose. It’s a public park, after all. Lots of people have painted this place, I understand.”

“You found her, when? Sometime on Sunday?”

“That’s just a guess?”

“Of course! I swear to God! She wouldn’t have gone up there by herself. It was a beastly time, and even she would have known it was going to rain soon. Somebody must have picked her up as she was walking along, after I gave her the boot.” Fitzgerald fingered the sketches of Rosie Marler. “Poor beast,” he said. “Wish I’d been more of a gentleman–she might be alive, and I wouldn’t be entertaining policemen. Still, she was a mess. Couldn’t shut up or sit still for a second.”

They went back into the central room of the apartment. Michael Fitzgerald paced in suppressed fury.

“Look here, officer. How much trouble am I in?”

“Hard for me to say. At the moment, not too much. Probably none, if you’ve been telling the truth–though it’s a pity you have no witnesses.”

“Awful lot of people around here. Maybe someone saw her go. All these windows overlook the road, and people do get up early and peer out, I have no doubt. She made that bit of ruckus.”

“We’ll do our job, Mr. Fitzgerald.”

“I’ll be grateful. Very.”

They ended the interview on an easy note, and the policeman left. Two doors away, he knocked at Alice Perrin’s apartment, but there was no answer. He had his notes, and he went away thinking of rainstorms and quilts, wet and dry.

His appointment with Larry Dykstra, the association attorney, came next. This did not take long and was unproductive–Mr. Dykstra was candor itself. He recalled Sunday perfectly; he had been out walking his dog, as usual, for a good part of the afternoon. He was retired and spent a lot of time outside with the dog, an elderly setter whose filmy eyes rested on Mullen without either criticism or interest. Mr. Dykstra had not gone up the hill; with knees like his, he kept to the level. He had seen people coming and going but had not noticed anything out of the way and could not recall who was out and about. He wondered what the trouble was, of course. Mullen gave him a brief sketch, and he deplored it with obvious sincerity. If anything came back to him, he would be in touch. Mullen thanked him and got on with canvassing of the neighbors, a job at which Officer Chen was already at work.

“We’re not in the Iron Triangle any more, Toto,” Chen had said, referring to the desperate neighborhood in which they most often worked.

Mullen had watched Chen taking in the swept roads and paths, the hill-sheltered and light-dappled buildings, the agreeable and varied landscaping. Because he knew that much grim Chinese experience lay close to the surface of his colleague’s mind, he felt at a loss to react to the pleasantry with more than a smile. The popular reference interested him, coming from the serious, self-contained Chen. The odd instant passed, and they had judged it physically possible that the whole complex could have overlooked some part of Rosie Marler’s early morning ejection by the irritated Fitzgerald.

They both hit pay-dirt right away. Arnold Chen spoke with the pleasant young woman who lived above Fitzgerald, Caroline Sparv. She had been up early because of a sick cat; she had heard Fitzgerald’s door bang, heard someone pound on it and demand to be let in. It had struck her, because never before had any such disturbance come from Mr. Fitzgerald’s apartment. She had been frankly curious and had opened her door a crack, just in time to hear Mr. Fitzgerald tell the woman to go away. She had heard her go, and even glimpsed her running somewhat unsteadily down the drive moments later, but it had been too dark to know what sort of person she was or any details about her–just a vague impression of a small person, moving awkwardly. She put the time at “a little after six.”

Aaron Mullen happened onto an elderly insomniac in the next building who had been waiting for morning by staring out his solarium window. He had been rather surprised to see a young-looking girl running down the road from the south-east part of the complex. He had watched her, the only moving thing in the dull morning, until she disappeared into the gloom, slowing down as she came to the public street and turning north-east, as she would if she were going to town. Mr. Baird put the time at “soon after six.” He had seen no one else, not a car, no details. It had seemed odd to him, but this was a safe enough neighborhood, and people did go running and walking early, so he had suppressed any slight uneasiness. There were so many people in the condominiums, and a lot of coming and going, so it was impossible to say whether she was a resident or not; he felt he had never seen her before, but from the third floor, in that light, and with his aging eyesight, he could not be sure of much. A dark-haired girl, wearing a dark coat. Mullen thanked him and trudged away to Fitzgerald’s building.

“Just a quick question,” he said when the artist answered his knock.


“Rosie Marler’s coat?”

He thought a moment. “It was navy. A trench coat, but not really long.”

“Anything else about her clothes you can tell me?”

Fitzgerald smiled. “I know–I’ve had my quick question,” the policeman apologized.

“Not my best field. But I remember plain running shoes, nondescript and dirty, and tight jeans with some kind of decoration around the cuffs–I noticed because I thought it was a little silly, putting glittery stuff on jeans. A high-necked jersey, long-sleeved, dull crimson.”

“No logos or anything?”

“I don’t think so.”

“And the ‘glittery stuff’?”

“It was beading, actually. Metallic beads and fringe. Like this.”

He produced a small sketch-pad and drew a band of delicate arabesques, then added overlapping loops.

“Distinctive. Silver and gold and scarlet beads.”

Mullen took the sketch and thanked him gravely. “My first Fitzgerald,” he said. “It ought to be signed and dated.”

The artist, with a solemn glance, added his pencilled name and the date; they parted amicably.

No such garments as Fitzgerald had described had been found anywhere near the body–no garments of any sort, in fact. Mullen wearily supposed, as he drove past the slopes of the headland back toward town and his office, that they would have to search the whole area. He swore briefly as his left tire crossed a large and jagged chuckhole. With the infrastructure failing all over, watching the roads was one more of the many tiresome tasks of daily life.

Rosie Marler’s death did not make news. It might have, from any one of several “angles,” but somehow it did not. Alice was not sorry for that. Her nerves, in fact, were becoming worse as time passed, and not because of any fear of a lurking criminal in the neighborhood. She felt an odd security about that–whoever had killed Rosie had killed her, and had no interest in killing anyone else. She could not have said why she felt this, but it was a conviction. As for feeling so rattled still, she had read somewhere about that–the mind can enlarge upon a bad experience for a long time afterwards, and a physical reaction may set in that was absent at the time of the event. She had, for example, spent a great deal of time wondering if she would ever be able to climb that steep path and walk about on the ridge again–even in bright weather, even with a companion. She counseled herself to try it as one might get back behind the wheel of a car after a driving accident, but she could see herself trembling her way uphill and shying at every shadow. For the time being, she would stick to the level and walk in the parks and on the beaches.

On Saturday it was clear and breezy, typically fine. Her chores finished and no social engagements until much later, Alice walked halfway to the tunnel, past the first of the beaches and part of the park. There were people about, and traffic; it was a busy weekend scene such as people had enjoyed there countless times. Runners and joggers and bikers were in good supply for the time of year, and several young people were skating in one of the emptier parking lots. A park truck, sour-apple green, straddled the sidewalk while the uniformed worker did something mysterious to a gate. Alice gazed briefly to the west, admired the bay’s brilliant, shadow-dappled surface, and felt suddenly tired and alone. She turned back.

By the time she had got to the beach, however, she had talked herself out of her doldrums–it wouldn’t do to be in a bad mood for the Ritchies’ dinner party. Just to make sure that all the cobwebs–in which were tangled her loss of Arthur, the enervating niceness of her daily life and her job, this late murder of a pathetic woman–were blown away, she decided to take a turn or two on the sand.

It wasn’t very nice sand, nor very clean. The semi-circle of beach was pebbly and strewn with wood and plastic debris. Seaweed in dark masses sent up its rank salt smell. Broken glass glinted here and there, especially where the little waves broke. A plastic shoe rocked back and forth in the shifting waves. A gull swooped low, and a tug came by, its noise and the smell of its fuel carried shoreward on the steady breeze. Alice found it all bracing–it added up for her in a way that more pleasing surroundings did not always. She gazed at the bulk of Angel Island with all her usual affection, admired the lines of the headlands against the afternoon sky, then fell to scrutinizing the stones and broken shells and shards at the water’s edge. She sometimes took such bits home to put around potted plants.

She turned over with her shoe a bit of black plastic that was stuck in the sand and was surprised at the resistance; she gave it another nudge, and the edge of the plastic appeared, with something shining in it. How odd–it was nothing like the usual broken glass. She used her foot still, then crouched down to look at what was revealed. Too odd for words, and too frightening, too: It was one leg of a pair of pants, edged in a bright, elaborate fringe of beadwork. She tugged further at the plastic, and the bag came away from the sand, torn, with the pants tangled in it.

There was no question in Alice’s mind but that this garment had belonged to Rosie Marler. It was her size, her style, and she had been found without clothes except an anonymous T-shirt. The only question was how to cope with her discovery.

After a few moments’ thought, she moved the pants and the torn plastic above the tide-line and covered everything with what she hoped was a random assemblage of driftwood–there was no lack of old boards. She climbed up the crumbling incline from the shore to the park. As she sprinted across the lawn, she was irritated at herself for having come out only with her key and no money–at the park lavatory there was a telephone she could have used. A park worker, hefting a garbage can, cast her a curious look as she hurried by, making her wonder if her face showed her upset. It would take her ten minutes to get home.

She was just making breathless speed toward her door when Larry Dykstra appeared at her side.

“Oh, hello, Larry,” she said, about to hurry on.

“I hear you’ve been involved with the police over this body that was found up the hill,” he said.

“Well, yes.”

She felt his solemn eyes on her and wanted very much to get away, to call the Inspector, to have this further responsibility taken away from her. She wanted to get on with the nice little life she had been deploring so recently for its sweet regularity.

"So was I. Inspector Mullen made me a visit and asked about my whereabouts and so on. And did I have a dark green van–no. Or know who does–no. Or seen one parked along the road–no. All this is because, Alice?”

“Yes, I suppose it is because. I mentioned to him that I’d seen you on Sunday afternoon, when I came down from my walk, after I’d seen–what I saw, what turned out to be the body. As for the van, who knows?”

“No harm in being out, is there?”

“Of course not, Larry.”

She looked at him hard, and he smiled.

“You were part of the landscape, that’s all. I simply mentioned that, and there’s nothing to worry about....”

“You might have something to worry about, yourself, being up on the hill. As we know.”

“So I might,” Alice said. “Forgive me, but I’ve got to do an errand just now.”

“See you, Alice.”

She hurried into her apartment, not a little puzzled by the attorney’s manner. She wanted to protest that an aging widow is an unusual suspect in the murder of an artist’s model and junkie. Shaking her head at how little, it seemed, she knew these people among whom she lived, she dismissed him and his somewhat melodramatic menace. What, after all, had he been reading or watching on TV? Or had he simply meant something else, that she was in danger herself? That, too, was melodramatic–she hoped. She telephoned Mullen and told him of her find of the beaded pants and her disposition of them. He thanked her and asked her to meet him at the beach in twenty minutes. She glanced at her watch–four thirty. There was time; she decided she would drive, however. It worried her a little, some minutes later, to pass Larry Dykstra in front of the building. They exchanged their usual brief wave. Business as usual, she thought; and who are we and what are we to one another?

She parked at the beach and waited, bemused to see the green park truck pass by and head straight for one of the larger potholes, rattling and jouncing across the jagged patch. Inspector Mullen’s unmarked car pulled up seconds later. Their purposeful progress took them over the rough, flat grass to the short drop that led to the beach. Alice lifted a hand to point to the jumble of boards she had arranged over the pants and the plastic bag, but they turned to stare briefly at one another instead of moving on.

For it was obvious that someone had torn up her improvised hiding place and taken the evidence. Mullen did not even bother to ask Alice if she were sure of the place; the beach was small, perhaps fifteen yards, bounded on one end by six feet of tumbled boulders and on the other by ten sheer feet of riprap. The driftwood had been flung aside from a depression of damp sand.

“Was anybody around to see what you were doing?” he asked at last.

She shook her head. “I wasn’t aware of anyone. But someone must have seen me. If you go down there, you’ll see how sheltered it is–or seems, at least, when you’re there.”

He nodded.

“No one that you can recall, though?”

She scanned the open landscape, the overlooking cliffs across the road, the derelict piers, as if to bring back the scene as it was only an hour or so before.

“There could have been someone. There was a park worker up here when I left. There were a few kids over on the pier. Maybe a person walking along the road. But when I came this way just now, I passed Larry Dykstra, the attorney from the complex, walking along. Still, he wasn’t carrying anything....”

She turned to him, and he waited, understanding that something had come to her.

“Forget that last,” she said.

They moved back toward the parking lot.

“You’ve got an idea?” he prompted at last.

The afternoon wind was tuning up. A slight warmth rose from the asphalt, grateful to them both. He handed her a small piece of paper from his pocket book, and she studied it with interest.

“Yes,” she said, handing it back. “Gold and silver and dark red. Fringing some petite jeans.”

It was Michael Fitzgerald’s sketch.

“I’d be interested to know where you came by that,” she said.

He gave a short laugh. “A cop’s first try at connoisseurship, I suppose,” he said. “I asked Fitzgerald to do it for me, from memory.”

She shook her head. “No. Not Michael Fitzgerald,” she said. “I’d bet my life.” She paused. “‘When you know how, you know who.’”

He raised his brows.

“A quotation. Lord Peter Wimsey says it in one of the Dorothy L. Sayers stories.”

“Sorry. I’m not one for fiction–though I seem to recall some TV series?”

“Yes. Well enough done, too. I don’t imagine such things mean much to someone like you, though–no relation to your reality.”

“No. That might be the appeal. But I don’t have much time for escapes.”

“Ah,” she said, shaking her head, and they shared a smile.

She turned out of the parking lot and walked a few yards northward. She gestured up toward the fire road. Beyond the closed gate, it rose in a dark and rutted curve to the ridge, muddy here and there still, then disappeared behind scrub oak and bay.

“Those park trucks. Four-wheel drive, aren’t they?”

Instantly he saw what she meant, but they stood in silence for some moments.

“And the worker you saw when you were here?”

“He was loading a trash can onto a truck. He glanced at me. I just hurried on, wanting to get through to you. I think it was the same one who passed by again just as you drove up, too.”

The Inspector nodded. “It’s a direction for us,” he said.

Back home, she hurried to get ready for the evening at the Ritchies’.

Inspector Mullen put in some time on the routine of tracing park workers; he was irritated with himself for not knowing more about the organization and its protocols. Still, it was not long before he had a likely name–Ray Sanches–and some details. No one else had been on duty at the relevant time, and Sanches had been on this afternoon as well. He was a newcomer, still on probation, not a skilled park workman but seemingly competent. Nothing was known against him by the park brass. He was said to live alone in a bedroom community some thirty miles farther along the bay shore. Mullen sent two men out to bring him in for questioning. The Department of Motor Vehicles provided a license number for a five-year-old Saturn, white, and Mullen checked with the Highway Patrol. Mullen steeled himself against a growing confidence that might, not just superstitiously but practically, be dangerous: so easy to let something get past if you see yourself on the right track, he knew.

When ten o’clock passed with no developments, any confidence that had lurked in Mullen’s mind gave way to misgivings. He enlarged the net. One small piece of information came his way and had a chilling effect on him: apparently there was a very large image of the Virgen de Guadalupe on the rear window of the Saturn.

The talk at the Ritchies’ had been stimulating, and for that very reason Alice left early. She always found it difficult to come down after pleasing social events, and hoped for a quiet hour or two to compose herself before sleep. There had been more people than usual, and the rapid conversation had ranged in many directions, but always she had been conscious of keeping back her own unfinished drama.

Flora Ritchie was the sister of Morgan Evers, and they had met in Italy on Alice and Arthur’s first visit to her boss there. Others in the party were new to Alice, but several of them knew Morgan, and almost all of them were sentimentally disposed to adore Italy as she did. Opera had succeeded literature and travel and architecture, then came excursions into football and soccer, and finally some politics, and then wine–the rival merits of Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino came up. The preferences were markedly indicative, Alice had thought. The fashionable young couple of attorneys, parents of an infant named Ashton, preferred the Rosso, Robert Ritchie defended the Brunello–always provided that it was adequately aged. The young couple kept on looking superior, and the male parent of Ashton added that the French had seen the light of late and were making their wine far more approachable, like the Rosso. Robert did not comment further, but, Alice noticed, he paid little attention to the couple thereafter. Since her own preference was for crusty people and austere wine, Alice approved.

What if they had known what was behind her reserve? Nothing, probably; indifference rather than shock, perhaps some moralizing. She considered what she knew of the Berkeley point of view and wondered whom they would see as victim. Where would she herself see guilt?

The little silver car ran easily down the steeps toward the Bay. In the clear, starry night, the spangles of the vast urban accretions around San Francisco Bay, as always, outshone the stars. She would have been totally content, she thought, if only Arthur had been beside her to share the sight and the recollections. What a wonderful place, but how divided, too. The prosperous bustled about their fine-tuned consumption, as at the Ritchies’, and the poor bustled about survival. Nothing much to be done. She shrugged off this mood to consider some questions of her work at Folium, and soon she was through the tunnel and close to home. Still, a funny old tune ran in her head, “She is more to be pitied than censured, she is more to be helped than despised....”

As the car curved into the driveway and the electric doors opened before her, Alice was brought back to the present by a slight shadowy movement half-caught in her rear-view mirror; she paused and looked carefully: nothing there. She eased the car forward into her space, switched off the ignition, and reached for her handbag. She glanced around before getting out, but the garage seemed as solemn and silent as always.

Her key was in the door lock when her senses became fully aroused to the sound of soft shoes on cement, some faint masculine perfume, and then, too late for action, a hand over her mouth and a strong pull of her body away from the car.

She could not see him, but she struggled. He spoke in her ear.

“How come you let her out like that?”

The voice was soft, not unpleasant, with a little quaver and the ghost of an accent.

The hand on her mouth relaxed a little, and she could turn enough almost to see him. He was small, shorter than herself, wiry, dressed in dark clothes.

“That girl–she crazy. How come you don’t bring her up better?”

Alice breathed hard, thinking wildly, then muttered. “Bring her up? I hardly even knew her.”

He shoved her rather hard.

“You know her. Her mother, I know you her mother. Now I have bad dreams forever, now I go to Hell because of her. You should bring her up better, teach her something, to be modest.”

They were face to face now, and he had let her go. She could see that he was in agony, that he was about to break down. She was trembling, but there was a core of her that was not afraid.

“I’m not her mother. She was a lost soul.”

“Look at you!” he screamed, and held her arms hard. “You look at you! Just like her! I know she your girl. You lookin’ for her, you after her, you worried for her.”

Alice shook her head in disbelief and sorrow.

“No,” she said. “No. You are quite wrong. I’m sorry, sorry for you. But she was not my daughter.”

After one long look at her serious face, the young man began to sob, letting her go and twisting around in a way that wrung her heart. She touched him gently on the shoulder.

“What is your name?”

“I am Ray. Raimondo, they call me Ray.”

“It will be all right, Ray. There’s help for you, don’t worry.”

He beat his head with his hand. “No,” he screamed. “After that, not even the Virgin herself will help me, my mother will not help me, my father will look at me like a snake.”

The door from the building opened, and Alice looked across to see Aaron Mullen moving toward them, calm and purposeful, followed by three uniformed officers. She put her hand on Ray’s arm again.

“It’s over now,” she said. “No one will hurt you, and pretty soon you will be able to forget it all. You have to tell them all the truth, though, everything. More than you told me. I’m sorry.”

He submitted without a word, and the officers walked him to a patrol car waiting just outside the garage gate. Alice and Inspector Mullen followed them, watched the white car with its complicated electronic gear and lights hurry of into the soft night.

“His Saturn’s up in the outside lot. I’ll get somebody to tow it away when I can. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to let him get so far, but he slipped into the bushes and down here. Bad timing all around. You weren’t hurt?”

“No, just shaken.” She paused. “He seemed to think I was Rosie Marler’s mother. He said there was a resemblance.”

He shook his head. “I can’t see it,” he said. “The poor guy’s beside himself.”


He put a steadying hand under her elbow and they moved toward the garage elevators.

“I don’t want to forget Rosie, though,” Alice said. “She’s been a wasted creature for years now, but she’s no more to blame....” That song! She shook her head at the vagaries of her own mind. “Only a lassie who ventured, on life’s stormy paths ill-advised....” Dear God.


They had reached her door and stood looking at one another, calm now but grim.

“I think I’ll have a whisky and get maudlin about the human condition. Care to join me?”

He glanced at his watch.

“Thanks. Just one for me.”

“Maybe I’ll skip the maudlin bit.”

“Who knows? We might both need a good cry.”

She laughed, however, and invited him to sit while she got glasses and whisky. That she was horribly tired came to her as she handed him his drink, and a glance at his face told her that he was drained and weary too.

“You might like to know that all the while we were looking for Sanches up around Pinole and Hercules, he was just driving around here and sitting in his car. Your security man thought something was funny when he drove into the parking lot and sat, and he called us.”

“Good for Ricky.”

“He’s a new guy at the park.”

“I guessed as much, because I see the workers when I walk.”

“I suppose you do.”

The silence that fell between them was easy enough, but Mullen finished his drink and rose to go.

“Be seeing you, I guess,” Alice said.

“In court,” he laughed. “Yes. Lots more to do, in fact. By the way, we found some of those little beads in the park truck. And hair. Have to find that coat, and the rest.”

They exchanged a long look from beneath their shared weariness, and a quick handshake.

“Aren’t you an odd sort of policeman, for this difficult part of the world?” she asked, holding open the door.

“Native of the place,” he said. “Grew up just the other side of your tunnel.”

His face set to acknowledge the grimness that lay beyond their territory, and was his sphere of work; but they understood one another. “It’s a long story.”

“So many are,” she laughed. “Perhaps I’ll hear some of it another time.”

He nodded, but almost did not acknowledge her polite comment; they were getting beyond tiredness, he thought, slipping toward stolidity; he had to go. “Thought I’d see what I could do,”
he added, though he knew she did not need his vague explanatory reference to early-day idealism.

“Ah. Well. Good for you. And thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.”

It was of all there was to do, for everyone, and of new beginnings, that Alice was thinking when she left for the office next morning, after a wakeful night. She might have stayed at home, tired as she was, but it seemed to her that work and routine would be healing. The beauty of getting out in the world, of taking part–as Rosie Marler would never do again, as Ray Sanches would never do again as he had once done.

Habitual motions took her out of the garage and into the fine light of a glorious wintry morning once more. She drove along, awake to everything, grateful for mercies small and large. She saw that some quick, mysterious powers-that-be had come by and filled in the chuckholes–patchily, it was true, and incompletely. How things got done! Wonderful. Still, the rain was far from over for the year, and drivers would be zigging and zagging around those same old hazards before the month was out.

BIO: Ann is a Bay Area native and long-time devotee of the mystery genre. Joe D'Ambnrosio of Scottsdale has previously published her LX Commute: My Sentence, a memoir of getting around in the Bay Area; and a story on disc with book included, Through A Glass. She now at work on A Commonplace Book of Tea, also to be published by Studio D'Ambrosio.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Don’t Judge A Strangler by the Hair - Bertil Falk

Don’t Judge A Strangler by the Hair

It is indeed nice to live out here in the summer on the outskirts of the archipelago on a small islet with only one neighbor. And that at a time when even the crevices of flat granite rocks are filled up with life in the shape of moss, where uncountable small creeping things pass their lives.

When the sun shines, and the heat reaches its peak some time after that particular star was at its zenith, the mild sea breeze fondles my cheek. It actually turns over the pages for me of a book (in most cases Cicero at this time of the day). I read it in the shade of the tall spruce fir. All the while, light rollers lap against the flat rock, which dives down into the water, and against the landing stage the white cruisers sometimes call at.

The married couple has not come to their cottage this summer. They went to the other side of the globe to experience a solar eclipse and in this connection “to do the world”, as they put it. It was probably this unexpected want of ingrained summer company that all of a sudden made me feel alone even though I had spent the long and cold winter all by myself without being affected by the condition we Swedes call “Lapland melancholy”. At all events, I decided on going to the Royal Capital and have a fling at the Katarina church in connection with a symposium on eschatology.

I am not that well at home in the capital. I have spent most of my life abroad and Stockholm has more or less been a place I have passed through on my way to and from my home I – a superannuated missionary – bought on the islet in the autumn of my life.

However, now I stayed in a prison cell at the Långholmen penitentiary. The reason for that is that I happen to be a member of the Swedish tourist organization, which has turned the old jail into a youth hostel. In that way I could “do the symposium” in Stockholm in a cheap way, while my neighbors “did the world” in a more extravagant way.

The symposium on eschatology was not that exciting. It was about the same old eternal existential questions, which we Christians have an answer to, except for the moments when doubts set in, which happens now and then. But then something else happened. A young woman, who had been silent most of the time, opened her mouth.

”Not even an atheist should repudiate the theory of a Creator, who has created the universe”, she said. “For even though the atheist is right that we can’t prove anything as to the origin or the genesis of anything and everything in a scientific way, the atheist is in a similar way not able to prove the absence of a Creator. It’s not enough to refer to a Big Bang. For what released the Big Bang and what in its turn released whatever released the Big Bang? And so on in all eternity. I just ask the question! Therefor the atheist should leave the door open for the theory that the world was created by a Creator.”

The thought was sublime and I was surprised that I never had thought that thought myself. On the other hand, I am not a very profound thinker. My theology has always been simple. God created the world. Be kind to your fellow human beings. Try to understand them. Do what you can to help them. Exercise love. That kind of things, but in a way her thought was simple too and simple truth is not always simple to discover. It took a succession of inventors to invent a functioning zipper, but when it was done anyone could see how simple it is. Not to mention the typewriter! It took more than one hundred inventors to perfect that tool.

During the coffee brake, I sat down by the side of the young lady. She turned out to be a curate. Her name was Lisa Bengtsson, thirty-five years old and besides being an intellectual she was intelligent too, in my experience a rare combination. She was probably good-looking according to the ruling standard when it comes to looks. Mascara around her eyes, black-with-green painted lips. There was an Indian golden ring in one of the wings of her nose. However, she turned out to be unmarried.

Her interest in existential questions was as profound as she was unmarried and we became friends. I told her about my experiences and she listened to the story some inventive journalist had called “There Are No Pockets In Our Graveclothes” about how greed can make people do very bad things, least to say. She seemed to be affected by my story and when she heard that I lived on an island in the archipelago, she said that she would call on me some day.

For a couple of weeks after the symposium I expected to hear from her, but my telephone never rang. Autumn came with autumn storms and winter went past. When snowdrops and winter aconites had ceased flowering and pansies and coltsfoots showed off, I had since long forgotten her. Then she called. It was not exactly a frantic call, but she was eager to tell me something. She had experienced something in line with my story of the uncut diamond and the lack of pockets I had told her.

She came dressed as the Lutheran clergywoman she is, wearing a clerical collar, and she looked even better than I remembered her. She jumped ashore from the skerry cruiser and hugged me as if we had been friends for years or father and daughter. I realized that she and I for sure must have struck up a remarkable friendship last year, a friendship stronger than I had imagined.

After she had taken a shower and occupied one of the two guestrooms, I showed her my house and we walked around the islet. In the evening, I made a Kenyan dinner. I put some butter in the frying pan, added shallots, and when they got brown, I turned up the heat and added crocodile fillets from a can. I managed to cook a dish, to some extent similar to the delicious game things I once had when I went to Carnivore on the verge of the Wilson Airfield outside Nairobi.

Mother Lisa, as I came to call her, gorged herself and I was happy that she liked my cookery. Later on, I served her coffee and a glass of sherry, and while our northern summer sun still struggled to get down to earth in the northwest, she began to tell me her story.

“It began eight years ago”, she said. “When you told me that strange story about the diamond and the lack of pockets of its owner’s grave-clothes, I came to think of it. For like your story this is a criminal one. It doesn’t involve the desecration of a grave. It’s worse than that. It’s about murder. There has never really been anyone I could tell the story until I heard you last year telling your story in that calm way of yours.”

I had never before realized that my way of telling a story could be described as calm.

“But for some reason I hesitated to tell you”, she continued. “But now something happened a few weeks ago and I decided to come here and tell you the story. For I must talk to someone.”

“You’re welcome”, I said.

“I certainly feel to be welcome here”, she replied and smiled. “I didn’t know that crocodile meat is such a delicious dish.”

“And I’m very curious. I look forward to hearing your story.”

“Well, it was a spring day eight years ago. The standing crops outside the town where my church is grow like mad. I took the bus to the town. Together with the sexton I looked through the run of things of the upcoming weekend. It was completed before the lunch hour. Then I hastened to the market place for the purpose of having lunch with my friend Eva Granberg.

“I don’t think that anyone could fail to notice that Eva was a hairdresser. She often changed her hairstyles. Sometimes she had close-cropped hair. Sometimes she had long hair. And she used wigs. She had ponytails that were put up with a colorful ring on the back of her head and twined queues that need no ring.

‘I dress according to circumstances’, she used to say, ‘so why shouldn’t I adjust my hair to the situation? Sometimes ones hair just has to be untidy, at other occasions it would be a mortal sin.’

“Anyhow, young and old basked in the sun on the steps of the town hall. The open-air restaurant had opened a few days earlier and Eva was already on the spot when I arrived. For the day, Eva was lightly dressed and furnished with a long, plaited ponytail. She looked bright and plucky. However, there was a thoughtful expression on her face.

‘I think we could sit here’, Eva said and got to her feet.

‘Obviously’, I replied.

We went inside the restaurant and after a while we returned outdoors to our table with one tray each. Eva had chosen sailor’s beef with potatoes and onions, while I preferred meatballs with potatoes fried raw. I remember so well how we enjoyed our food with an appetite.

‘Well, what about your boyfriends?’ I said jokingly to Eva. ‘Any news?’

Eva, who just had speared a meatball, put aside her fork on her plate.

‘I don’t know what to say’, she told me. ‘Ulf and Göran are tremendously jealous of each other. I’ve told them that none of them is to my taste, so to speak, but they persist in courting me and looking askance at each other. I don’t know how to get rid of them.’

At that I looked surprised at my friend. It was something in Eva’s voice I didn’t recognize, an anxiety of some kind. Where she sat, she certainly looked pretty. It was understandable that representatives of the male species liked her. But her brown eyes, which usually sparkled, had a hesitant trait.

‘You don’t sound happy’, I said.

‘I don’t like that they’re so difficult to shake off. And I neither like that they’ve become enemies because of me.’

‘And you don’t know how to get rid of them?’

‘That’s for sure’, Eva said.”

Lisa sipped at her sherry and she looked very serious.

“Three days later Eva nevertheless got rid of one of her admirers”, Lisa continued. “Car mechanic Ulf Svensson was found dead in his home. Strangled!”

I began to get an idea of the relevance of her story, but I did not say anything. Lisa stared for a moment out through the window, where the light summer sky of the evening spread a pale shimmer across the white clouds.

“To begin with the investigators thought that the marks on his throat had been caused by a thick, twined rope or a hawser. Eva was very upset when she came to see me in the church.

‘I really hope that Göran Stenlund didn’t do it’, she said.

“Do you mean that he could have been that jealous of his rival that he could have killed him?’ I asked her.

‘What to believe after all that has happened between the three of us?’ was her reply.”

Lisa once again sipped at her sherry before she continued.

“Eva told the police the story of her two admirers. The murder investigator listened to what she had to say. She told him that she had visited her murdered admirer in the evening the day before he was found strangled. She said that she had returned a book she had borrowed from him. She didn’t want him to have any reason to come over to her place and therefor she had been anxious to return the book.

“Then Göran Stenlund was heard by the investigator. He admitted that he and the murdered man had been rivals, but he also explained that Eva had told them both that she wasn’t interested in any of them.

‘So why would I’ve killed him`, he had maintained.

“Henceforth, it turned out that the police lay low while waiting for the report from the legal pathologist. When the report materialized, it became obvious not only that Ulf Svensson had been strangled but also that the murder weapon could not have been a twined rope or a hawser as they had thought from the very beginning. On the other hand the pathologist had found some hair on his throat. Since Eva Granberg was a hairdresser, this finding draw the investigator’s attention to her. But the hair neither came from her or from the rival Göran Stenlund. And they were not from the murder victim either.”

As Mother Lisa’s story evolved, it turned out that Göran Stenlund had called on Eva Granberg early in the evening before the murder took place and that they had quarreled vehemently. When interrogated, they both had given the same version. Uninvited, Göran had turned up pleading, but Eva had been unbending and told him that if he and Ulf continued poisoning her life, she was forced to give up her work and move to some other place. The next day Göran Stenlund had returned and apologized for his behavior.

And when the two women had another lunch together, Eva wore her pigtail, which hung all the way down to her behind. Now she had been even more alarmed than at their first meeting. It made no difference that the whole Nature sang and the sun shone with an encouraging shine from a heaven of blue crystal at the same time as the gulls screamed with joy of living. Eva was dejected.

‘I can see that you’re depressed’, Lisa Bengtsson had said with sympathy. ‘I hope that you won’t get too absorbed in this mess. But what did you say to Ulf when you visited him that evening?’

‘Oh, what did I say?’ Eva had exclaimed. ‘Nothing in particular.’

‘Did you quarrel?’

‘Not at all. It had sunk in that an affair between us was unthinkable. He had begun to accept it as a fact.’

‘But Göran didn’t accept it?’ Lisa had asked.

‘On the contrary, he tried to force me into a relationship and he was terribly jealous of Ulf.’

‘So he could’ve been the perpetrator?”

To that Eva responded with a smile, saying: ‘You sound like an interrogator and not like a spiritual guide, but yes, he could’ve done it, but I think that the police suspects me as well.’

In response to that Lisa had said: ‘What can I say that comforts you in this distress. It had been easier if you had been a believer.’

Lisa Bengtsson looked in a clairvoyant way across the waters.

“Göran had made an unpleasant scene”, she said. “Eva was terribly upset when he was gone at last. It was then that she saw the book she had borrowed from Ulf. She decided on returning it straight away. She didn’t find her ponytail, which irritated her even more. At last she snatched the book and went over to Ulf. He told her that he had began to understand his position.”

“And Göran?” I asked.

“As I said, he came over to her the next day. He said he was sorry and apologized. He said he wanted to be her friend. Then he went away.”

“That’s it?”

“According to Eva, yes. But the thing is that … well, Eva found her ponytail. She wore it when we had our second lunch. The strange thing was that it had been visibly lying on her desk. She thought that she had been so upset after the quarrel with Göran that she didn’t see it when she looked for it.

“Now, Göran was once more interrogated by the investigator. He repeatedly said that he had not been visiting Ulf for weeks. The interrogator pointed out that it was a well-known fact that the two men were jealous of each other and he asked what Göran had done that evening, when Ulf was strangled.

‘I was at home looking at TV’, Göran said.

‘But you called on Eva Granberg.’

‘That was earlier. We quarreled and I walked straight home.’

‘A witness says that you were out walking at 09.00 PM.’

‘My usual evening walk.’

‘Are you sure that you didn’t walk to Ulf Svensson’s place?”

‘I may have walked in that direction’, Göran Stenlund had replied whiningly, ‘but I never called on him.’“

Lisa sipped at her sherry, looked at me and said, “And now the events took a sharp turn. Eva was summoned for another questioning. The investigator was the same man as before. He smiled at her and said:

‘Well, now let us …’

At that he stiffened up and stared at her.

‘Will you please turn your head’, he said.

‘But why?’ Eva answered.

‘Do as I say’, the policeman said.

She turned her head.

‘This time you’re wearing a pigtail or queue or whatever you call it and you wore it last time you were here as well.’

Eva laughed and admitted the fact. And the interrogator asked her if it was detachable.

‘It certainly is’, Eva said.

‘A moment please’, the man said, went through the door and returned together with a woman. ‘Don’t move when we unfasten the false hair.’

The ponytail was put in a transparent plastic bag. And at that Eva realized that they thought that the pigtail was the murder weapon.”

I had listened to the story with increasing interest and I found this new twist breathtaking. From here Lisa told me that Eva became subject to what can be described as cross-examination. Had she not lied about her visit to the victim? Didn’t she visit Ulf Svensson in order to dispose of a persistent admirer? Had she not from behind strangled him with her ponytail?

“Well, Eva cried and denied and explained that she had not worn the pigtail when she returned the book to Ulf. But it looked bad. And her situation did not improve, when the forensic medicine people established that the hair on the murdered man’s neck came from her thick, plaited pigtail. But Eva maintained that she had walked bareheaded and without ponytail to Ulf Svensson’s home, since she had not been able to found it. She had not used any wig at all.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“When I read the headlines in the vestry, I understood that my friend was under arrest, for good reasons suspected of having killed Ulf Svensson”, Lisa said. “I was very upset and all of a sudden a light dawned on me. I thought I knew how the murder had come about. I didn’t let the fast growing spring grass grow under my feet. I rushed out into the sunshine and hastened across the market place to the police station, where I got admission to the investigators. They listened to me and at the end Eva Granberg was released and Göran Stenlund was arrested. Some time later he confessed.

“And what exactly had you found?” I asked my good-looking guest.

“Well, I’ll tell you what I told Eva during our third lunch. This time she wore no pigtail. The police kept it as evidence. She thanked me and said that without me, she would probably have been shaking prison bars for years. I replied that the truth nevertheless probably would have been discovered along the investigation. It just happened that I found out the solution before anyone else. I recalled that after quarreling with Göran, she couldn’t find her pigtail. Therefor she went over to Ulf without it and returned the book. Thus, she could not possibly have strangled him with the pigtail. The next day Göran returned to her and apologized. That was even before Ulf was found murdered. But Göran didn’t return to apologize. He returned to slip back the pigtail on the sly. He had stolen it when they quarreled. I guess that Göran after the quarrel stood spying outside her house. When she came out and walked to Ulf, Göran’s jealousy took on monstrous proportions. His decision to kill his rival was strengthened. When Eva was gone, he called on Ulf and strangled him with her pigtail.”

“One might say that your friend Eva escaped by a hairbreadth”, I said. “And the important thing is that your friend was innocent.”

“Was she? I don’t know.”

I must have looked utterly stupid.

“There is more to this story”, she explained.

“But you said …”

“Hear me out and I’ll explain. He confessed to the murder. He was sentenced and served seven years and was released. Good behavior and all that, you know. My friend moved to some other town and I lost contact with her.”

At that she made a wry smile.

“Then one day”, she continued, “I got to know by chance that Eva has been visiting Göran in jail every month all these years. And after his release …”, she made a long pause, “… they married. What do you make of that?”

“I see”, I replied, but I was in fact so surprised that I didn‘t see. Stunned, I said, “She may have lied to you about not being interested in him?”

“I don’t think so. I rather think that Eva carried out the murder, while he took the blame. It was kind of blackmailing on his part. He promised her to suffer her punishment in exchange for her.”

I stared at the gorgeous minister.

“Can it be proven?”

“Probably not.”

She hesitated.

“But it’s as if this story has not enough of twists, for there is one more twist to it.”

If I had expected some sensational new turn, I was right.

“You see’, Mother Lisa said, “three weeks ago my friend Eva most conveniently became a widow. Göran was found knifed to death not far away from their home. It was supposed that some jail mate had killed him. It has been said that many inmates had a grudge against him. But I wonder, I wonder. And that’s the story. What do you think?”

There was a long silence.

“A very strange story”, I said at last. “And you did come here to tell me this?”

“As I said, I can’t think of someone else. But it’s not only a question of getting a load off my mind. The important question is rather: what shall I do? Leave it is as it is or go to the police once more?”

We discussed that problem up to two o’clock that morning, and I am glad to say, that when we went to our rooms, the decision as to what had to be done was arrived at.

BIO: Bertil Falk, a retired Swedish newspaper and TV journalist. Debut at the age of 12 with the story “Trip In Space,” inspired by reading Edmond Hamilton and Eando (actually Otto) Binder. Their short stories were published in Swedish.

Got his first novel The Masked Gang-Leader published in the pulp magazine Alibi Magasinet at the age of 20.

Bertil’s only pulp mag, 1954 After that, Bertil worked as a journalist for newspapers all over Sweden and ending up as scriptwriter in the newsroom of a Scandinavian TV channel in London.
Bertil has spent more than ten years of his life in Britain, India and the United States and has travelled all over the world. He has produced TV documentaries in Kenya and Tanzania about medical doctors working for the Rotary Doctor Bank and the documentary The Woman Jack Didn’t Rip about the third victim of Jack the Ripper. She was Swedish. Some of these documentaries have been shown by QPTV in New York.

Bertil’s second mystery, 1996 In 1996 Bertil’s second mystery, Murder and Orchids was published. There is a Ginnunga gap of 42 years between the two novels. Since 1996 he has written many mysteries, fantasies and sf-stories, not to mention a bunch of short stories, most of them published in Swedish.

Bertil is now (2006) translating into Swedish the autobiography Flames from the Ashes by the Indian journalist and freedom fighter P. D. Tandon in Allahabad.
After his retirement Bertil was for a couple of years the editor of DAST Magazine, a Swedish publication dedicated to detective stories, secret agent stories, science fiction, fantasy, and thrillers: in a word, DAST. He is still writing for the magazine.

Bertil has translated a lot of short stories from English to Swedish by Arnold Bennet, John Dickson Carr, Wilkie Collins, F. R. Corson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jacques Futrelle, Willliam Schwenk Gilbert (of Sullivan fame), Jeremiah Healy, Edward D. Hoch, William Hope Hodgson, Jack London, L. T. Meade, O. Henry, Sue Parman, Anthony Parsons, Melville Davisson Post, Mark Twain, Edgar Wallace, Henry St. Clair Whitehead and Loel Yeo. Just to mention the top of an iceberg.

Bertil is living on his own in a cottage in the small village Västra Alstad in Trelleborg, the southernmost community of Sweden. He has two daughters (both of them translators) and five grandchildren, at this stage (2006) of the Harry Potter-reading age.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Swimming Against The Tide - Barry Baldwin

Swimming Against The Tide

There was only one thing on what was left of Eddie Coates' mind.

Find Bert.

Bert Shuttleworth. Eddie's old mate, his mucker, his oppo, from rampaging around their back street as nippers to first fags behind the bike shed to first fumblings under girls' jumpers also behind the bike shed - their local comprehensive school's after-hours social centre - to the day when they jumped together into the cold murk of the sea.

Eddie was never any great shakes at swimming, just a floundering dog paddle picked up at the town baths and day trips to Blackpool where he'd been more interested in female breasts than his own and its stroke. He was, though, an optimist in his way. Back when he was still capable of coming out with such things, he'd said to Bert after one of his splashing sessions, "I reckon if I'm ever on a ship and it sinks four feet from shore I won't have a thing to worry about."

Bert was a top-notch swimmer. He had more patience than Eddie, as well as the physique for it; while Eddie was glancing at the girls, they were sizing up Bert. But when they did their high-speed drop into the ocean, a good deal of Bert was on fire.

The way eye-witnesses told it, Eddie and Bert had been seen each trying to push a large plank of wood that was bobbing about between them towards the other, until they were blotted out by the billows. When everything was clear and calm, Eddie was sprawled over it, Bert was nowhere to be seen, and that's how it was when the rescuers hauled him out.

The medics patched him up on the outside, they couldn't do anything about inside, and that wasn't their job, anyway. So, when he kept insisting that Bert's last words had been "See you around, Eddie Coates," and that he must still be alive, they added a few verbal bromides to the pills they were feeding him, made a curt note in their report, and left it at that.

Because of what the others had said, both of them were heroes of a sort, which did Bert no good but Eddie got a bit of money out of some government department, or rather his mother did. She took it over, saying it would go towards "keeping him," now that she supposed she would have to.

She didn't, not one hundred percent. But she still had to put two hot meals a day into his belly and a roof over his head. Like many folk who know the price of everything and the value of very little, she was fond of saying that you can't measure everything by money, which is true enough even if the person saying it does. Eddie was out all day during the week, on Saturdays she drifted him off to football in the afternoon and the pictures at night, on Sundays "a nice long walk, it'll do you good after being cooped up in that place," or whatever else she could dream up.

There was one other good thing, at least up to a point. When he was having one of his fits, he would be out until all hours roaming around looking for Bert Shuttleworth. He only seemed to have these attacks when the weather was wet; but it rains a lot in the Northern town where they lived. The snag is, when you know somebody who's out is bound to be back in sooner or later, it's nearly as bad as having them there all the time.

Eve Coates' husband Fred had walked out soon after Eddie was born. Nobody was all that surprised, the main question being, was Eddie the last straw or a last hope soon given up on? Her version of events wasn't current in the pubs Fred drank in by himself, and he'd always taken care only to thump her where the bruises wouldn't show.

His side of the bed was hartdly cold before she started auditioning his replacements. She was a good-looking woman, was Eve, if you go for big brassy blondes, which most blokes do. Some paid in one way, some paid in another. Some stuck money in Eddie's hand and told him to get lost; some gave him a clip round the ear and also told him to get lost. Eddie preferred the money, though was happy enough to grab any chance to bunk off with Bert, who basically filled in as his father and mother, while Eddie did much the same for Bert who was an orphan being brought up by grandparents whose best didn't add up to much, not that either of the lads realised any of this.

After Eddie minus Eddie came back home, Eve started to insist on cash in hand for her favours, being forced to the understanding that money was money while meals out and weekends away only ended up as memories, which don't pay the bills. On top of everything else, the maintenance work on her face and figure was costing more and more. Eve had as few illusions about herself as about anyone else, and fully recognised the nature of her appeal to the punters. She knew exactly what that Yank singer - the one with the tits like melons and those glittery costumes, what was her name? - was getting at when she said in some magazine interview that people wouldn't believe what it cost to look that cheap.

So, every week a bit of what she made out of her fifty hours a week behind Mr Patel's counter and her "gentlemen friends" and the extra from Eddie was put by. One day, a moonlight flit was going to be on the cards. Telling Eddie was not. She'd have done more than enough for him by then, as if she hadn't already - he was eating her out of house and home for one thing. If he went off at the deep end - not the best choice of words in his case, or perhaps it was - they'd put him in some safe place. One of her regular gentlemen was a doctor who said that any time she gave the word he could arrange to have Eddie sectioned and out of her way, meaning his as well, but tempted though she was she thought she'd keep that ace up her sleeve for another day, so played the good mother to the hilt, bursting into tears - she'd once fancied amateur dramatics and pretending with Fred and most of his successors had kept her in training - and exclaiming that come what may she couldn't ever do that to her own flesh and blood, however much grief he cost her. And, if he improved, or stayed the same, there were plenty of cheap lodgings in their neck of the woods and, well, he'd got a job, hadn't he?

Not got, exactly. He'd been given it by Mr Aislabie Hardcastle, owner of the town's biggest factory. It wasn't much of a job, of course, being the kind no one else wanted, none of the locals would touch it, and there was a distinct shortage of black faces thereabouts, excepting Mr Patel whose sons and daughters had all "gone Western," which was how Eve came to have her spot behind his counter. Sweeping the floors, keeping the lavatory respectable, fetching and carrying for whoever shouted loudest, a bit like being a fag in one of those public school stories that Eddie used to devour in his reading days, though Bert would never look at them.

Officially, Aislabie Hardcastle gave Eddie the job because his own son had copped it in much the same way as Bert Shuttleworth, so he wanted to do something for this other local lad who'd got knocked about doing his bit. At least, that was the version in the evening paper and on the regional radio. His regular workers, always more inclined to cynicism than credit for good intentions, and having no other cause to associate him with charity of any kind, reckoned it was just another of those government job creation things and old man Hardcastle was getting cheap labour and tax incentives and what-not out of it.

It was obvious from the start how many planks short of a load Eddie was, so he'd have taken some stick from the others, especialy the ones around his own age, except that the foreman had put it about that anyone who tried anything on him would have the gaffer to answer to. By and large, then, apart from the dogs-bodying, they left him alone, which wasn't hard. When he was in a normal frame of mind, you wouldn't get a peep out of him, and when he was having one of his do's you couldn't shut him up about how Bert Shuttleworth was still alive and somewhere in the town and how he was going to find him one of these days. They'd just nudge each other and wink and go Yes Eddie, Right Eddie, You Go For It Eddie. Those who remembered the pair from old times led the pack in insincerity, content that it was just a delusion in an addled brain; no one who had known Bert Shuttleworth wanted him back.

One day, another new man turned up. The first reaction on the shop floor - only muttered because of his size - was, where the hell does old man Hardcastle dig them up? Some whispered that this one was as daft as Eddie, you only had to look at his eyes, others thought this was a false impression because they were the only thing about him that seemed alive. You couldn't tell what he was thinking, then or ever, since he had this odd immobile face which gave nothing away except a vague sense that it was a costume mask he was wearing, though he wasn't misshapen or ugly in any outstanding way. As one of the men complained in the canteen, they say it takes forty-three muscles to frown and only seventeen to smile, but that bugger won't even move one. He went on to compare the voice that went with it to that of a droning Dalek on Dr Who. Not that they heard much of it. The new man, silent during his mumbled two-sentence introduction by the foreman, was hardly more talkative than Eddie on a good day, using an all-purpose nod to compensate for his vocal lack and blank look.

What struck them most, though it was conveniently dismissed as two of a kind, and what a kind, was the way this bloke coped with Eddie. For a while, it wasn't too hard. The weather was unusually fine, so Eddie was dormant. He caused a flutter, though, by asking the new man more than once if he could do anything for him. With the rest, it was always a case of waiting to be told.

Then the rain came back, right on schedule for mid-summer, teeming bucketfuls, flash floods in the town centre, people sloshing into work even if they'd only had a short sprint from bus stop or car park. With it came the worst-ever tide of Bert Shuttleworthism. The new man took the full lot, which suited the shop floor well enough, although it now had the distraction of seeing how he actually sat down with Eddie as if they were old friends and let him rave on for ages, not just nodding but laying a hand on his shoulder and putting in a few drones of his own; no one could make out what, and who cared?

They would have, if they'd bothered to.

Eve thought she'd not seen Eddie quite this worked up before. His talk was the usual drivel about Bert Shuttleworth. She let that wash over her, as always. But he'd barely touched his fried bacon and baked beans, his favourite meal, which Eve would slap together for him as a Friday treat, backed up when she was in a rare good mood by a condensed milk sandwich, in exchange for his pay packet. She hoped he wasn't sickening for something; that was all she needed. Even more surprisingly, he'd got himself all poshed up, wearing his best jacket, the one with all the pockets, a tie whose style was years out of date but it was still a tie, real shoes instead of trainers, and his mousy hair stuck down with carbolic soap and water, doing it was pointless, that he'd troubled to do it at all was not. Eve hadn't realised that Eddie knew any more that he had a best jacket. It was the one Bert Shuttleworth had egged him on to buy; he'd never worn it since that last night out before they'd gone away. She was more pleased by than interested in Eddie's condition, since it suggested that he'd be late back, which suited her own plans for a discreet meal and afters with her doctor friend. Hoping it would help find room for the message in his teeming head, she gave him back a bit more than usual from his wages: "Here, if you do bump into that Bert Shuttleworth finally, buy him a pint on me. You don't want to hurry back. I'll most like be late myself. You know where to find the key."

It was still wet, the on-again-off-again stuff that is more aggravating than the real thing. Eve watched him set off from the front room window, which wasn't usual, shaking her head, which was. She hoped those bulges in his pockets were his plastic Pak-A-Mak and muffler, otherwise if the rain really set in again his jacket would get sodden and he'd catch his death of cold. She couldn't be bothered to open the door and shout after him about it, she was running a bit behind schedule and needed to get to work on her own tittivating if she wasn't going to be late.

It normally took Eddie a good hour or so to walk from their house to the town centre. He never took the bus, whatever the weather, a good policy on principle, they'd become a lot more expensive and erratic since the municipal ones had been sold off. Eddie's reason was that he was nervous of being caged up in anything after what had happened to him and Bert.

Tonight, he was quicker, not stopping to do his usual spot checks in all the pubs along the way. He kept worrying maybe he ought to, in case he should at last strike lucky off his own bat, but he didn't want to risk being late and the old watch of Fred's that his mother had once chucked at him wasn't always very good about telling the time. He did keep his eyes peeled on the Friday night crowds, though, but nothing doing, except he had a stroke of fortune without realising it when he stopped and stared too long at the gang of youths congregated outside The Roxy, the town's one glum remaining cinema, a social solecism that would have got most people a good kicking on any weekend English street, and the youths did nudge each other and turn in his direction, but something about him put them off and they slouched away with nothing more than a bit of Eff-You fist waving.

It was too early for the Dog and Bear to have got going. Just a couple of old-age pensioners at one of the back tables spinning out the halves of mild which was all they could afford, heads bent down over the delaying tactic of their game of dominoes. The landlord, new since Eddie had last been in with Bert, not that he was aware, summed him up with professional speed as another poor spender, so ignored him.

There was no sign of the man from the factory. Eddie retreated to the doorway. He didn't fancy trying to order a drirnk by himself, Bert had always done that for them and he'd never been out with anybody else since and in any case he wasn't much of a drinker and still remembered that pubs don't care much for men who only have an orange squash. But he thought he should hang around in case he was early or the man was off having a jimmy riddle in the Gents. But after only a couple of minutes a fresh customer trying to get in had to push his way around Eddie with more than a bit of swearing and the landlord called out "Did you want something, mate?" in a tone that implied he'd better not, and Eddie shook his head and backed out into the alley down which the Dog and Bear was situated, almost colliding with the woman who was stood there watching him.

For a jumbled minute, Eddie fancied it was his mother, come to fetch him home with a few clouts and no supper and straight up to bed for stopping out too long with Bert when there were chores waiting for him. This woman was a younger version, just as blonde as Eve in her prime and just as big if not bigger under her leather jacket and roll-top sweater and showing off the same amounts of leg and thigh thanks to a skirt that didn't know what a knee was. The real article, not mutton dressed up as lamb. She was smiling at him as well, something his mother never did, and other women only out of pity.

"Would you be Eddie Coates, by any chance?"

Like smiles, enquiries about who he was didn't come Eddie's way very often. Those who knew him spent very little time in his company, unless it was for a spot of light relief, and those who didn't know him didn't want to. Because of what they often had to put up with themselves, women could sympathise a bit more, in a vague not-going-any-further-than-that way. Back in the old days, Eddie had been as keen on girls as the next lad, one reason he stuck to Bert, trying not to mind too much that Bert clicked with them ten times to his one and when in pairs always went off with the bobby-dazzler, leaving him and the plain Jane or hairy Mary looking at each other in a Now What? way after last orders or last waltz. Still, he had had a few moments, especially after he'd broken down one time and begged Eve for some tips and without really knowing why, except that she was between friends and had got to thinking about Fred without the thumpings and Eddie was the only thing of Fred she had apart from the old wooden sea-chest that he had sanded and begun to varnish before leaving it in the cellar empty and unfinished like everything else he had started, she helped him in a way that very few mothers would. All the fragments of this mental kaleidoscope shook themselves into place for an isolated second: "I used to be," he said.

This answer surprised her, though she kept the smile tacked on her face. It wasn't what she'd been led to expect, a smarty-pants comeback. She paused, uncertain whether she should reply in kind or stick to her script. Eddie, already retreating into his one-man world, solved it for her with "Who are you? You're not my mother."

"Hardly. I'm a friend of him from the factory. You know, the one who said he was going to help you look for Bert Shuttleworth."

It was the right and the wrong thing to say. "Has he found Bert? Where is he?" Eddie looked desperately up and down the alley, its gloom made worse by the single street lamp long since vandalised out of action and the frosted glass of the Dog and Bear's window which kept most of its light to itself.

Along with Eddie having let on that the Dog and Bear had been one of Bert's favourites, this was the reason it had been chosen, and why she'd been hanging around in the shadows waiting for him to go in and come out. It had been dinned into her that no one should see them together long enough to remember.

"Hang on a minute. No, Bert's not here. But he knows where he is. He's told me to take you to him."

"Where are they, then, where are they?"

"Let go my arm, you're hurting. That's more like it. Only, there's one thing to be settled first. He told you it might cost a bit, his looking around and that. Did you manage to bring any money, like he said?"

Eddie dug a hand into his bulgiest pocket. Not knowing whether to be more thrilled or amazed over the mass of notes he was pushing at her, she stopped him as he was starting to fumble for more, wanting to get away before anyone else came into the alley or out of the pub. "That'll do nicely. Keep it in your pocket till we get there. Right, let's get cracking. I've been wondering what Bert and you'll make of each other after all this time."

That wasn't the only thing she was wondering, now.

Avoiding the lights of the town centre as much as possible, she led Eddie through a maze of back streets and ginnels, grateful she'd been told to do a dry run the night before to make sure she wouldn't get them lost. Eddie trotted along, sometimes beside her, sometimes behind, like a puppy anxious to keep up with its mistress but not sure how. Had this image entered her head, it wouldn't have endeared him to her one little bit; she disliked animals almost as much as men.

They finally reached a rickety swing bridge. Eddie didn't like the look of its ropes and girders, they reminded him too much of too much, so was relieved when she steered him away from it and on to a path that had been worn down to and through the wasteland that made up the bank of the old industrial canal. This bothered Eddie more than the bridge. "Why are we here? Bert won't like water since..."

"Calm down. It's all right." She squinted at her watch, a far cry from Eddie's old thing. "Almost time. We'll just have a fag, and you can hand over that money while we're about it." She rummaged in her bag for the cigarettes, leaving it unclasped, producing a battered pack. "Bugger it, only one left. Sorry. You don't mind, do you?" She lit up, not expecting an answer. Holding up the lighted Swan Vesta like a flare before tossing it, she took a deep drag, doing her calculations. "A rum spot, this, I grant you. There's one like it where I come from. They used to hold an open-air market on it every Saturday. My grandad used to buy his specs and false teeth from a stall there." It wasn't the moment to add how the old so-and-so was always groping after her though he was too decrepit to do such a good job at it as her father; it never was. Anyway, she knew she was talking to herself. "Let's be having you with that money, then." Obediently, Eddie clawed into a pocket, but she'd only had time to grab a couple of handfuls of notes before he gaped past her and started to shout, "He's there, he's there, look, he's come!"

He was pointing to underneath the bridge. The man was standing there; he'd emerged from behind one of its pylons. She cursed him silently for not giving her enough time to lay hands on all the money. "Hold hard!" But Eddie was off, puppy turned greyhound, almost tripping over a length of rusted pipe that was slumbering on the canal bank amidst all the other rubbish ancient and modern, including a number of old packing crates, in any one of which a man or woman would easily fit. She started after him, moving a good deal more slowly, despite the strength her regular profession had given her legs, partly because of her high heels, partly because the final choice was still at a crossroads in her brain.

The man didn't move. He had his back to them, giving an impression of the villain in an old black -and-white film with his heavy black coat and antique porkpie hat. He thought he'd gauged it perfectly, doing an about turn with military precision a second before Eddie would be on him.

"See you around, Eddie Coates."

Until the doorbell rang, Eve was having a good night. The dinner with her doctor friend had gone well, so had the afters, and he was starting to sound genuine about leaving his wife. She decided to treat herself to a drop of brandy and a nice long soak, even sparing a thought for Eddie and how he might have got on as she pottered about.

The two uniformed police officers, scuffers as Eve was old enough to call them, a male and a female, were propping Eddie up between them. Above his slumping body and rag-doll limbs his face was all blotchy and the intense light in his eyes from tea time was quite gone out.

"Mrs Coates?"

"For my sins. You'd best bring him in. Look at the state of his clothes. That was his best jacket, and those shoes cost me I don't know how much..." The uniforms exchanged a look.

"What have you been up to, you daft ha'porth?" Getting no change out of the question, or the good shaking with which she followed it up until the male officer stopped her, she changed tack. "He'll be no help. Best get him upstairs and into bed. I'll have a go at him in the morning."

They followed Eve upstairs, half-carrying half-dragging Eddie, into a back bedroom which looked not much more inviting than the holding cells down at the station, with its cracked ceiling, dim bulb, and faded wallpaper unrelieved by any sort of picture or poster. They flopped him down on the narrow bed and started to watch but very soon didn't want to as Eve dragged off his jacket and trousers and shoes, not bothering with the rest and tossing a thin scruffy blanket over him without any attempt to clean him up or dry him off.

The male officer said he'd stop with him for a bit, just in case, and perched at the foot of the bed, no chair being in evidence. The woman one followed Eve back down the uncarpeted stairs and into the old-fashioned kitchen, almost falling over one of the peeling brown squares of lino, where she wasn't offered any of the brandy Eve started swigging, so there was no call for the Not While We're On Duty routine.

Eve had noticed the stumble. "I had our Eddie down on that lino. All by myself, as well; my bastard husband was in the pub." That was the extent of her trip down memory lane. "What's this all about, then?"

I thought you'd never ask. Aloud, "There's been a bit of a to-do down at the canal."

"The canal? What was our Eddie doing down there?" This flurry of Our Eddies struck the police woman's ear as grafted on for effect. "He's never gone near water since..."

"We don't know yet. Eddie hasn't been able to tell us anything. The truth is, Mrs Coates, it's rather more than a to-do. There was another man there and..."

"And what did he tell you?"

"I'm afraid he was in no condition to tell us anything. He was dead by the time we were on the scene. We're wondering if he might have been a friend of your son..."

"Eddie hasn't got any friends. He only ever had one, Bert Shuttleworth, and he's been dead for ages, good riddance to bad rubbish, though nobody can get Eddie to believe that."

"Yes, I've heard bits and bobs about that in the canteen, but they mainly make a joke of it and I've not been here that long and've never heard the full story."

"They wouldn't make a joke of it if they had to live with it, I can tell you. There's not a lot to say. Eddie and this Bert Shuttleworth had always knocked around together ever since they were out of nappies, almost. Too much so, for my liking, Bert was always taking advantage of Eddie as far as I could see, but when your husband's done a bunk and you're out at work six days a week, what are you supposed to do? Anyhow, the pair of them suddenly went and signd on for the navy. They didn't have a lot of education, and there's precious little for lads around here. Six months later, they were in the thick of the Falklands, helping old Ma Thatcher keep the sheep British. Their ship was hit by one of those Exocet things. Half the crew went killed or missing. Eddie got picked up, Bert didn't, that's the long and the short of it, except Eddie's never been right since. The quacks say it's guilt transference, whatever that is when it's at home. They reckon Eddie somehow thinks he ought to have done more to try and save his pal, though Bert was always the swimmer of the two, and he won't believe he's dead because he has to find him to make up."

"Does he get violent much?"

"Violent? He's never that. A lot of the time he's all right, though slow, like. And when he gets these fits, all he does is tramp about the town looking in the pubs and asking folk if they've seen Bert. You're not telling me he had owt to do with that bloke being dead...?"

"We're not sure of anything yet, but we don't think so, and after what you've just said...Does Eddie have treatment, pills or anything?"

"They haven't come up with a pill for what ails him, love." This last word sounded as tactical as the Our Eddies. "I admit they've warned me he could suddenly go right round the twist and never come back, and I have this doctor who says he ought to be sectioned for his own good, but when all's said and done he is my lad and..."

Change the details and the police woman had heard this sort of stuff a thousand times before. "Does Eddie usually have much money on him, like when he's seeing a girl or anything?"

"Seeing a girl? Don't make me laugh. He used to be interested when he was right, he had to be, going with that Bert Shuttleworth. I could tell you a tale or two about both of them, but not since he came back. Money, well, I give him his allowance every pay day, enough for what he does and a bit more to make sure you lot can't run him in for vagrancy. What's money got to do with this business?"

"Quite a lot, though we haven't fathomed the ins and out of it yet. We only came on all this by accident. One of our Panda cars went down there for some reason, there's not usually much happening by the canal except a spot of courting and the odd suicide. Between you and me, they just wanted a quiet half hour with fish and chips and a listen to the football. Anyway, they found this fellow in the water and Eddie hunched up on the bank and this woman scrabbling around trying to pick up all these bank notes. She swears blind they're hers, and she's known to us as the sort who does her earnng at night, but it seems an awful lot for somebody at her level, which is why we're wondering if your son...?"

The sarky emphasis she put on Your Son was water off a duck's back. "Well, that's a complete mystery to me..." As Eve emptied her glass, not the first, she went vacant-looking, as though she'd gone inside herself. More likely the brandy than any of this, the police woman thought. At that moment, her colleague came lumbering down the stairs and into the kitchen, shaking his head as she looked up at him. "A bit of whimpering, otherwise dead to the world." When Eve shook herself back and managed "Is he in trouble, then?" he grabbed the chance to take the spotlight away from his opposite number. "I doubt it, especially not with him being the way he is, though it's too early to be sure, and whatever happens the police doctor will want another look at him. We reckon she somehow got Eddie down there to do, you know, the business, and this bloke was her minder and she had him waiting to jump her client. It does happen, not just in London" - he sounded almost proud of the local villains' ability to keep pace with crime in the capital. "The medic they brought to the scene says the bloke didn't drown, someone clobbered him, probably with an old bit of iron pipe we found there. It's thought when she saw how much money there was she reckoned she wasn't in a sharing mood, so she cracked Mr X over the head and pushed him into the canal for good measure, probably hoping he'd go down or float away. We'll soon know that from fingerprints, she wasn't wearing any gloves, spur of the moment thing. And she'd have got away with it, if those Panda chaps hadn't sloped off down there."

The woman was presently spilling some of the beans, egged on though not too convinced by the suggestion tha a clean breast of things would be a fair swap for a word to the judge on her behalf before sentencing. She'd met this factory bloke in a pub, not the Dog and Bear, and they'd got talking and weighing each other up, he was partly after the obvious, but had bigger fish to fry. He'd given her a down payment to meet Eddie and pretend she was a friend, and have her wangle him down to the canal so there would be no danger that he'd be seen with him in the town. When she asked him why, he'd clammed up, and although his face couldn't convey any subtle messages, he'd contrived to make it silently clear that this was something not to be asked or answered. This made her wary of enquiring how he thought a dumbo like Eddie could raise any worthwhile amount of money. But when she put the question of what should she do if Eddie turned up cashless, he replied as tersely as his Dalek tonsils allowed to bring him down anyway. She agreed that she was the one who'd felled him with the iron pipe, but sh hadn't intended to kill him, she was trying to stop him from doing harm to Eddie who'd lurched at him and was promptly knocked down and obviously in for some GBH at best.

The police doctor sent round to look at Eddie, who hadn't said a word since he'd been brought home, and never would again, found a few marks and bruises which did a bit to bolster her story, to which she stuck, and without Eddie's side of things and no other witnesses, they agreed with her not to pursue the idea that she had done Mr X in because she reckoned that after all his precautions he wouldn't be planning on leaving her around to tell the tale, in return for which she only objected inside herself to their earmarking the money for an unofficial contribution to the Police Benevolent Fund, and settled for manslaughter with extenuating circumstances that along with her cooperation left her facing only a couple of years, not counting time off for conduct.

Eddie, however, got a life sentence. The police doctor said it was a bad sign, his refusing to speak, bottling it all up could lead to a big explosion. There was no longer anything in it for Eve's doctor, who had finally decided not to leave his wife, and he was counting on enjoying not doing anything to help Eve until she pointed out that sectioning would be a suitable exchange for her not blabbing to wifey about his carryings-on. The papers were signed, and Eddie was taken away. The Long Suffering Mother act was left down the cellar where she'd gone the minute the police officers had left and seen how much of her savings were missing from the wooden sea-chest.

The optimists on the mental home staff thought that, given a long period of treatment and isolation, Eddie might just snap out of it. Not wanting to run the risk of tipping him over the edge into permanent Bertmania, it was resolved not to tell him the rest of the story, nor Eve either, not trusting her after the impresion she'd made on the police officers; and there were no relatives or friends on the Shuttleworth side. So, it was kept under the carpet how the authorities with some reluctant help from Aislabie Hardcastle traced Mr X back from the factory to the ship and the naval hospital records and the details of seaman Shuttleworth being picked up against all the odds by a helicopter that had come back on the off-chance and the plastic surgery so drastic that not even his mother would have recongised him and the artificial voice-box and the warnings in the file about his mental state, he seemed to be blaming his best friend, and when tracked down one of the eye-witnesses had admitted that they'd agreed to lie for the sake of the service's reputation, in reality both Eddie and Bert had been heard going at each other on board for signing on in the first place and landing them in this war, and the scraps of their old mateship drowned in the icy water and the smoke and the noise, and they'd actually been seen both trying to pull themselves on to that plank, all of which gave good reason why Bert, when finally discharged from the hospital because a shortage of beds, should return home like a dog to its vomit to lure Eddie to what he'd missed the first time round, not to mention, which no one did, the different light it would have shed on to Eddie's own quest.