Authors: Barbara Cleverly
The Last Kashmiri Rose
Ragtime in Simla
The Damascened Blade
The Palace Tiger
The Bee’s Kiss
Tug of War
Folly du Jour
Strange Images of Death
The Blood Royal
Not My Blood
Copyright © 2013 by Barbara Cleverly
All rights reserved.
Published by Soho Press, Inc.
New York, NY 10003
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
A spider in the cup / Barbara Cleverly.
1. Sandilands, Joe (Fictitious character)—Fiction.
2. Bodyguard—England—London—Fiction. 3. Police—Fiction.
4. Murder—Investigation—Fiction. 5. London (England)—Fiction. I. Title.
This one’s for Will
Other Books by This Author
LONDON, JUNE 1933. DAWN
n a neglected reach of the Thames, a woman stood counting the chimes ringing out from Chelsea Old Church behind her. Five o’clock. All was going to plan. Miss Herbert—tall, imposing Hermione Herbert—listened on as the bells of other churches made their contribution to the musical round, some ahead of, others hurrying to catch up with the authoritative boom of Big Ben sounding out a mile downstream. She glanced over her shoulder at the string of old-fashioned gas lamps outlining the bend of the river and sighed in satisfaction. The amber glow of the gas mantles was beginning to fade to lemon as a brightening sky quenched them, offering her sensitive eyes a symphony in grey and gold worthy of Whistler.
This was the moment and the place.
And both were full of mystery. Objects invisible only minutes ago began to reveal themselves. A bundle of rags a few yards away on the muddy bank flapped in a sudden gust of wind, taking on a disturbing semblance of human shape. A barge waiting for the tide stirred lethargically as one of its blood-red sails lifted with the half-hearted flirtation of a tired tart’s skirt.
Hermione shivered in anticipation. Looking about her at the desolate scene, she almost expected to catch sight of the frock-coated Victorian figure of Charles Dickens out and about on one
of his insomniac forays into the dark alleys of London. The city was never still. She could sense the restlessness. Early though the hour was, there were people about. They weren’t parading themselves, but they were there all right, the lucky ones with jobs to go to: bakers, bus drivers, factory workers, going quietly, almost apologetically, about their business. And there were others lurking there in the shadows above the waterline. The destitute and discarded. Watching. Furtive.
She pulled her tweed cape up to cover her neck, glad of its warmth. Even on a late spring morning, the banks of the Thames were a funnel for cold damp air and, glancing round at her little group, she was pleased to see that they had all taken her advice and kitted themselves out suitably for the occasion with waterproofs and mufflers, gumboots and torches. The six members had been carefully chosen by her. This had been a popular assignment, and as chairman of the Bloomsbury Society of Dowsers (Established 1892), Hermione had had her pick of volunteers:
Doris da Silva had been chosen for her proven ability with the hazel-twig dowsing rod. (Doris could detect a half-crown under any thickness of Axminster carpet in a London drawing room in seconds.)
Jack Chesterton, ancient buildings architect, was here on account of his charm, his common sense and his enthusiasm. And his belief. Jack had earned the admiration of all when he had discovered—armed with no more than a pair of slender parallel rods—a tributary of the Thames, one of London’s lost rivers that had run, unsuspected, for centuries beneath the venerable walls of St. Aidan’s Church.
Professor Stone. Reginald. Present solely on account of his knowledge of Romano-British history. Cynic and Snake in the Grass. The professor was that most disruptive force in any evangelizing society—a self-proclaimed interested disbeliever. Never embarrassed to call a cliché into service, he was pleased to refer
to himself as “the piece of grit” in the oyster that was the Society of Dowsers. Hermione had called to mind her father’s advice: “Enemies? Always keep ’em where you can see ’em, my girl!” And here he was among them and rather surprised to have been chosen. Hermione was determined that any success her group might have this day would be witnessed at first hand and authenticated by their chief critic. She was also looking forward to rubbing the professor’s nose in the London mud before the day was out.
A loud harrumph drew her attention to Colonel Swinton. Chosen for his reassuring presence and the authority of his voice, Charles Swinton had vocal equipment so magnificent it could have sounded the charge of the Royal Dragoons above the battle din of Waterloo. And, rather essentially, because he’d been able to offer in support: two of his gardening staff. Strapping, shovel-wielding auxiliaries brought up to town from his estate in Suffolk and hastily enrolled into the Dowsers for this venture, Sam and Joel were eager to get on with it, whatever “it” might be. They were determined to go home with stories to tell about their jaunt up to London Town.
On their presentation to the Society the day before, the colonel had interrupted Hermione’s introduction to the art and science of the discipline, speaking on their behalf: “A moment please, Miss Herbert. May I explain? My boys have grasped the theory that when a sensitive person takes in hand a forked twig and passes it over concealed water or precious metals, the device will announce the presence of the unseen object of interest by movements of a vibratory nature.” He caught himself sounding didactic and added, “An old country practice. We’re not unfamiliar with it in Suffolk.”
He looked for confirmation to the boys. They nodded.
“S’right, sir. Old Malkie—’e found ’imself a well. Far side o’ the six acre. A good ’un.”
“No problems there then,” the colonel went on. “No. What
concerns us, er—shall I say?—us country folk is the
of this effect. Does, in short, the power stem from the Light or from the Dark, if you take my meaning? Sam and Joel have asked me to warn you that they will have no truck with vibrations of an occult origin.”
Us country folk?
Hermione smiled at this description. She could have pointed out that the colonel kept rooms in Piccadilly, had his club in St. James’s and was connected to the highest in the land, but she let it pass, appreciating his delicacy.
She’d turned, instead, to his men. “Gentlemen, let me reassure you!” She spoke earnestly. “We think of dowsing as a force for good. Life-enhancing … like bell-ringing or flower-arranging …” Her spine, already straight from three decades of corset-wearing, straightened even further, and she looked them directly in the eye. “In this Society, we stand in the Light. The occult is not even acknowledged by us. Will you accept that we put out no welcome mat for the Devil? That no supernatural presence crosses our threshold?”
“Not unless’n Old Nick were to get your signed permission first, miss, I reckon,” Sam drawled.
“An’ always supposin’ ’e remembered to wipe ’is boots, miss,” Joel added, straight-faced. “Good enough, Sam?”
“Good enough. ’Ave a go, shall we?”
They spat on their hands and held out rough palms for the hazel twigs.
In spite of their compliance, Hermione wasn’t quite sure they’d understood the finer points of the science of dowsing when she’d tried to explain. Indeed, when she’d attempted a demonstration of that pivotal stage—the rising of the rod—they’d gone into helpless convulsions with much flapping of red-spotted handkerchiefs, wiping of eyes and shaking of shoulders. Strong shoulders though.
And warm hearts, Hermione guessed. At any rate, their
scepticism had an edge of amused indulgence. And it was silent, unlike the all-too audible sniping of the professor.
“All present and correct, Hermione, my dear,” announced the colonel. “Dawn coming up like thunder behind Tower Bridge downstream. Time to make a start? Yes?”
Hermione silenced him by extending a finger dramatically toward the river. “A minute or two spent in reconnaissance is never wasted, Charles,” she said, reining him in sweetly. “As you well know! You can give us all a lesson in preparedness.”
The peremptory finger redirected itself to the map she held in her other hand. She peered at it and raised her prow of a nose to align with the silhouette of Battersea Power Station just emerging from the mist on the southerly bank opposite. “Yes, the tide’s out and we have the right place. Last reminder, folks—we have one hour and forty minutes of low tide. I’m going to ask the colonel to plant this red flag at the edge of the foreshore.” She held up a triangular piece of red cotton attached to a pea-stick. “Keep an eye out at all times. When the water reaches this flag, abandon whatever you’re doing and move back to the embankment fast. Spring tides have swept many an inattentive mudlark away! I suggest we confine our search to the fifty-yard stretch from that upturned old boat on the right and the breakwater to the left. We’ll put Doris in from this side and Jack in from the other.” She smiled encouragement. “With our two best bloodhounds straining at the leash, what’s the betting that we shall soon be shining our torches onto … Roman
, evidence of Caesar’s lost river crossing …?”
“A piece of statuary wouldn’t be bad, would it?” The professor deigned to make a contribution. “They found the severed marble head of the Emperor Claudius in the river—perhaps with your additional supernatural skills, Miss Herbert, you can supply the British Museum with the imperial torso to go with it!”
“Or—better still!—a Celtic warrior’s shield.” Hermione reclaimed the spotlight. “It was a few yards from this place”—she
turned to direct her remarks helpfully towards Sam and Joel—“that the most lovely, bejewelled bronze shield was dug from the mud. Why here? Did it indicate the site of some ancient battle? Or a devotional spot where precious objects were broken up and thrown into the water as a gift to the River God? To Father or Mother Tamesis? If you want to know more, you may ask the professor.” She turned a beaming smile on him.
“Now—how may we best deploy you, Reginald? Why don’t you sit yourself down on that boat? Check it for rats and rough sleepers first. From there you can watch our antics with your usual jaundiced eye and stand by to be consulted. Perhaps before we hear the chimes of Chelsea Old Church behind us calling us to coffee, you will be planning a new chapter in the history of Londinium?”
All were now primed and ready and at the right pitch of eagerness to start. “Did you all bring a flask? Excellent! Well, let’s get at it, then. You know what to do.”
ED FLAG IN
hand, Colonel Swinton turned to the river to conceal his smile. In Hermione Herbert, the British Army had missed out on an effective field marshal. But she hadn’t been lost to them entirely. As a casualty of Cambrai, Swinton had, himself, encountered the full force of Miss—or, as she was then, Matron—Herbert’s efficiency. He’d noted her leadership qualities from his hospital bed and had always reckoned it was the ministrations of this angular, grey-eyed angel that had saved his life.
He’d watched her skilful disposition and motivation of her troops; he’d admired the cheerful way she’d snipped out the professor’s sting, rendering him not only harmless but even an asset. All was going according to plan though he would not relax his vigilance. The colonel was accustomed to taking responsibility for events and people, for quietly managing outcomes. So far, so good. No need at all for crossing fingers.
wasn’t experiencing the colonel’s sunny confidence. She sidled timidly to Hermione’s side and began to whisper. “Excuse me, Miss Herbert, but I really don’t like this place. It’s creepy!” She looked over her shoulder with what Hermione considered an irritatingly girlish show of fright. “There’s someone watching us. I’m not at all certain I can bear to work here.” She took a scented lace handkerchief from her pocket and put it under her nose. “And what’s that dreadful stench?”
“Just normal river smells, Doris. Oil mostly. With a dash of Lots Road power station effluent thrown in. Possibly a dead dog or two. Detritus of one sort or another. Brace up! You won’t notice it after five minutes,” she lied cheerily. Four years of military hospitals, blood, gangrenous flesh and mud had never accustomed her to the smell of decay. She woke on some nights with her nostrils still full of the ghastly cocktail that no dash of eau de cologne seemed able to dispel.
“Now come along, Doris—you’re trembling so much I’m not certain how we’ll ever know if it’s the hazel twig vibrating or you. Calm down and show me a steady pair of hands. That’s better! I’ll come with you and get you started. Here’s your marker.” Hermione scraped a line in the mud with the heel of her boot. “I see our handsome young architect has designed his own dowsing implement! Do you see? He’s abandoned his parallel rods and brought along that steel contraption he was describing to us. I wonder if he’s taken out a patent. Oh, look—he’s off already! Now, here’s a challenge, Doris! Let’s see if your honest-to-goodness hazel twig can outdo him!”
HE FORKED STEEL
and the forked hazel moved along methodically at a slow walking pace, advancing towards each other from opposite sides of the tide-smoothed mud flats. The wands
were held stretched out in front of the two dowsers in hands that grasped lightly, waiting for the inexplicable—but always shattering—upward tug or the sideways swivel.
After an hour, nothing more exciting than a metal-studded dog collar, a two bob piece and an ounce of rusty straight pins from the clothing factory upstream had surfaced. They’d been washed clean of the sticky black mud in a bucket of water thoughtfully hauled up from the river by Joel. Jack Chesterton, whose wand had located the pieces, was encouraged. “There, you see! I tuned my gadget to metal receptivity! And it seems to be working.” He looked with sympathy at Doris’s hazel twig and shook his head. “Not much point using what is essentially a water-divining device on a
bank, is there?”
Sensing ill-feeling in the ranks, the colonel chipped in. “I say—are we thinking a change of bowling might be called for?” he suggested cheerfully. “Beginner’s luck and all that? You never know! I’d love to have a go. Take up the twig and give Doris a rest? I shouldn’t much care to handle Jack’s contraption, however. It could well take my fingers off!”
“In a moment perhaps, Colonel. If there’s a gold sovereign anywhere about, Doris will home in to it, I’m sure,” said Hermione confidently.
And it was Doris who made the find.
As the sun slanted over the Albert Bridge, they heard a small shriek and turned to see Doris struggling to hang on to a hazel rod that seemed to be leading a demented life of its own. They hurried to her side and Hermione relieved her of the thrashing twig. Jack knelt and marked the spot by scratching a cross over it with the handle of his contraption.
“I say! Well done!” he said. “This really looks most interesting.” He bent his head and peered sideways at the patch of mud. “If you look at it with the light slanting behind it, you could almost imagine there was a ripple … an anomaly of sorts … Sorry! Trick
of the light, I’m sure … It’s smooth on top where last night’s tide has scoured it, of course, but … Odd, that … Shall we?”
Delighted that their moment had come, Sam and Joel took off their jackets, rolled up their sleeves, cracked their muscles and set to dig. Their shovel-spades, a country design carefully chosen for the work, sliced, scooped and heaved aside the heavy clods in an ancient rhythm. The lads had clearly come prepared to dig all day and were brought up short, not a little disappointed, when their spades struck something only a foot or so below the surface.
With a glad cry, Hermione moved in with her trowel. She was known to be a member of the Archaeological Society and a first cousin to a director of the British Museum. The others shuffled aside, giving her precedence—and room to operate.
Seven heads bent over the wet patch as the first gleaming surfaces were revealed, showing white against the black mud. At a signal from Hermione, Joel approached and carefully slaked the area with the contents of another bucket of water. The murky flow oozed away, revealing a pale arm. After a chorus of startled gasps, a silence fell and no one thought of telling Hermione to stop as the skilful movements of her trowel laid bare the remaining limbs. Two complete arms, two well-muscled legs and a torso lightly draped in a short, classical tunic were released to the sunlight by the action of Hermione’s whipping wrist, accompanied by carefully anticipated libations of river water from Joel. The digging pair worked on in harmony until a head appeared.
With a growl of distress, Joel put down his bucket, unable to go on.
Tendrils of hair curled about the neck and cheeks of the sleeping features. The shell-white ears were small and perfect. The straight nose was intact.
The delicate jaw, as the jaws of the recently dead will do, sagged open at the touch of Hermione’s exploratory fingers. Flesh still covered the bones but the image of the gaping skull below
broke through, striking a grotesque note and arousing in the living an ancient terror.
With years of medical practice guiding her, Hermione tugged at a limb, pressed the livid white flesh and turned the head again slightly to inspect the mouth. Her unhurried, professional gestures calmed her audience. A horrified curiosity kept them firmly in place, huddled around the corpse. Hermione’s voice was deliberately emotionless as she spoke. “Not a child. A young woman. Perhaps twenty-five or younger. No broken limbs or obvious wounds.” Her words were controlled, but encountering the glare of challenging eyes and a reproachful silence from all, she added, “Though I think we have all observed the … er … anomaly.”
All eyes were drawn to the right foot. Heads bobbed slightly as, once again, the toes were counted. One, two, three, four.
“Do you think, Miss Herbert, that one of the spades may have severed her big toe?” Doris whispered.
“No. I revealed the feet with my trowel. The toe was lost at the time of death, I’d say.” She examined the foot more closely. “A clean severance but no sign that healing had begun. Perhaps we’re looking at a suicide? Perhaps she fell off a boat and drowned? She’s not been dead for long.” She peered at the neck, frowned, and then eased up the fabric of the tunic with a delicate finger to check the abdomen. Spellbound, no one thought of looking aside. “I see no sign of putrefaction. I’d calculate two days, three at the outside.” She got to her feet. “No. Let’s not deceive ourselves. This is a burial. And, we must suppose, a clandestine burial. Murder? Most likely. We ought to inform the authorities at once. Colonel, could you …?”
“I noticed one of those police boxes up on the embankment. I can phone from there.” The colonel’s moment had come. He shot off, a man on a mission, Burberry flapping.
“Poor, poor little creature,” Hermione murmured. “She is, you see, rather small. No more than five foot two, I’d say.”
“And so white,” murmured Doris. “I’ve never seen a dead body before. I thought at first it must be a bird—a swan perhaps. You do see them on the river sometimes.”
“And now this pale swan in her watery nest
Begins the sad dirge of her certain ending.”
Jack was whispering, round-eyed with shock. “Except that we didn’t hear her swan’s song. Not starting. Finished. Two days ago, you say? God, I feel such a fool!” He threw down his steel wand, his voice thick with emotion. “Here we are—mucking about like kids with our daft little devices! When, all the time she was … she was …”
“Nothing more we can do, I think. We’d better all stay exactly where we are and wait for the police,” Hermione said.
“Allus supposin’ they gets ’ere fast, miss,” said Sam. His gentle delivery could not dampen the drama of his next announcement. “Red flag’s under water. Tide’s racing up. I reckon we’ve got ten minutes afore she goes under again.”
The sound of Professor Stone’s voice caught them all in a state of uncertainty amounting to paralysis. It was unhurried, calming even, in its familiar mocking tone. “Well, a day not entirely misspent,” he commented. “At least the team has achieved one of its objectives.” Receiving no response other than a glower of outrage from the others, he ploughed on. “Miss da Silva is to be commended on her find.” He pushed forward. “Excuse me. May I? While we still have a moment?” He knelt to look inside the dead girl’s mouth, clamping his arms behind his back to underline the fact that he was not about to tamper with the evidence.
“Ah, yes. Thought I caught a flash of something when you tested her for rigor, Hermione. I’ve seen one of these before. It’s a coin you see. A large one. It’s jammed in there, under her tongue. Hmm … And it’s gold. In fact …” He twisted his neck to an
uncomfortable angle, recovered himself and pronounced, “If this is what I think it is, I’m going to make a unilateral decision to extract it before it gets lost in the tide. I know! I know!” He held up his arms to ward off the hissed advice to touch nothing. “These are exceptional circumstances, and I’m sure the police would want us to preserve any evidence we can find.”
They watched as he delicately slid the coin from the mouth and held it out for inspection on the palm of his hand. “Well, well! At last I can be of some use. This is a medal depicting the Emperor Constantius the First capturing London. Made to mark his victory over Allectus. In two hundred and ninety-six AD, I believe. Interesting. Very. You have indeed struck gold, Miss da Silva! Do you see the slight reddish tone it has?” He tilted the coin from side to side to demonstrate. “Thracian gold. Extremely valuable.”
He was elbowed out of the way without ceremony by Joel. The man whose spade had brought her back into the light picked up his jacket and draped it respectfully over the slender remains. He bowed his head and his deep Suffolk voice rolled out over the unconsecrated grave.
“Lord, grant her eternal rest and may light perpetual shine upon her,”
Their “amens” mingled with the shrill blasts of a police whistle and the peremptory calls of a pair of beat bobbies racing along the embankment towards them.
oe Sandilands, seated in the back of the unmarked squad car that had picked him up from his flat in Cheyne Walk, was speeding along the embankment in the opposite direction, heading for Mayfair. The driver’s automatic but abrupt raising of his right foot from the accelerator at the sound of the police whistles caused Joe’s briefcase to fall to the floor. He leaned forward and slapped his driver happily on the ear with his rolled-up newspaper.
“Eyes front! Not one for us, Sarge! Just grit your teeth and drive past. The local plod can manage.”
All the same, both men’s heads swivelled to the right as they passed the scene of activity on the riverbank.
“The usual, I expect,” offered the sergeant. “Three bodies washed up on that spot so far this month. It’s the current,” he explained vaguely. “You’ll be all right, sir. We’re no more than ten minutes from Claridge’s. It’s still early—we should beat the crush at Hyde Park Corner.”
The sergeant glanced up at his rearview mirror and smiled with approval at the stern face of his passenger. Assistant Commissioner Sandilands. Seven in the morning and here he was, bustling about, well into his day. He’d probably already finished the crossword. He was top brass—no doubt of that—but the other
men of his rank would be still abed, rising later to put on their uniforms and swagger about opening bazaars, pushing piles of paper from one side of their mahogany desks to another or just waiting about for retirement. This one, Sandilands, waited for nothing and no man. Ex-serviceman, like his boss, Commissioner Trenchard. You could always tell. A bloke who got things done. The “new policing,” they called it. Horses for courses. The sergeant would have put a bundle on Sandilands if they’d entered him for the Grand National. A man built for speed as well as skill over the jumps. Smart looking chap, too. Good suit. Discreet tie. The doorman at Claridge’s would be pleased to see this gent bounding in, oozing confidence and Penhaligon’s best.
Ten minutes. Joe’s composure was all on the surface. He readjusted his perfectly tied tie and sighed. It was hard to remain calm when you were about to meet one of the world’s most influential, most wealthy and most scurrilous men. And you’d had instructions from your boss to shadow him for a week or two, possibly longer. With the simple instruction of keeping the unpredictable rogue alive.
He remembered his briefing from the Commissioner the week before: “It’s this damnable conference, d’you see, Sandilands. The World Economic jamboree. London awash with dignitaries of one sort or another from Albania to Zululand. All highly vulnerable. One-to-one protection is what the Home Office has decreed. At the highest level. And you’ve been allocated your man. Welcome him, assist him, make friends with him—if that’s possible—but, above all, make sure no one bumps him off—not even one of our own rubber heels. If you can keep your subject out of trouble that will be a bonus. Keep him out of the scandal sheets and there could be a medal in it for you,” had been his brief.
It had been useless to put forward the name of the man in Special Branch who could have made a much better job of it—indeed, whose job it was. “Surely James Bacchus would be
expecting to assume this duty, sir?” He’d tried. “A senior officer in the protection squad with an impeccable record?” he reminded his boss. “Known to have saved the lives of several members of the royal family.”
“Agreed.” The commissioner had nodded. “We’re all aware of Bacchus and his men. Formidable reputation! Not the least of their achievements—preserving the lives of at least half a dozen of our leading politicians.” He nodded sagely. “Winston Churchill could have been a goner on several occasions here and abroad if Inspector Thompson of the Branch had not thrown himself between the man and the bullet. And shot back to good effect. At IRA gunmen, Egyptian lynch mobs, Indian nationalists, knife-wielding Frenchwomen and a selection of the deranged. Difficult man to protect, Winston!” He chuckled. “Likes to take his own bullets. Old soldier, you know. And it occurs to me you might well have the same problems with your charge. He’s somewhat battle hardened, too, I understand, and much more sprightly.”
Joe’s spirits were sinking fast. He waited to hear more.
“James Bacchus will certainly be involved and working alongside. We value his skills. But I’ve got something special up my sleeve for
. Our Branchman speaks excellent French and Italian and—rather essentially—German, I understand. I shall be assigning him the overall control of the European contingent. He’ll be liaising with all those foreign johnnies in black leather jackets and fedoras who slink about with bulges in their pockets, protecting their lords and masters. Might as well support them so long as they know who’s in charge and respect our firearms laws.”
Joe recognised this flow of words as a reluctance to get to the point and come out with a name. It did not bode well.
get the American. Cornelius Kingstone. Senator Kingstone.” Trenchard sighed and favoured Joe with a glance that was questioning and yet apologetic. “Friend and advisor to the
President. Attending the conference loosely under the direction of their Secretary of State, Cordell Hull.”
Joe searched his memory and came up with nothing. “Cornelius Kingstone? I’m not aware of the gentleman, sir. But if he’s a friend of Roosevelt, I’m sure we’ll find some common ground. Aren’t you offering me an easy option? From your introduction, I was expecting a more taxing proposition. Herr Hitler’s High Chief Executioner or Signor Mussolini’s Spymaster General, perhaps. Not a solid American democrat.”
Again Trenchard showed signs of unease. “Look here, Sandilands. Our SIS, New York Section, or British Security Coordination as they like to call themselves, are new boys and just working themselves into the posting. Plenty to do! That east coast is littered with German spies—always has been. But Jeffes and his lads are very keen. They have practically assumed consular status for themselves and get invited to the best parties. They are in a position to vet these politicians for us, and they’re making odd noises about this one. Not an entirely straightforward proposal they’re telling us. Oh, politically, he’s as sound as a bell, all he declares himself to be and very much in Roosevelt’s pocket. Or is Roosevelt in his? Kingstone has been very generous to the cause apparently. But there have been discordant notes. Quite recently. Since Roosevelt’s election. Fact is, the chap disappeared for three days in January. The president was angry—his aide missed several important meetings—but forgiving when he showed up again. Kingstone was a bit disturbed and made excuses for his absence that were less than convincing. Whatever his adventure, it left the senator with a black eye, a sprained wrist and a thoughtful expression. Our men leap on such stories with relish. They love a bit of diplomatic scandal. Too much partying at the White House.” Trenchard sniffed his disapproval and added dismissively, “I expect it was no more than a romantic interlude that got out of hand. The senator’s prone to that sort of thing. But just in case
the man’s got some pugilistic skeleton in his cupboard, you will be on hand to protect him, Sandilands. He’s a man who understands our position and has a well-informed world view. A valuable asset amongst that pack of screeching egotists we’ll be seeing lining up to do us down.”
“Don’t the Americans have their own security squads at their back? The Bureau of Investigation, Naval Intelligence, Secret Service, Pinkerton’s … they’re not short of that kind of thing.”
“I’ll say! And all bristling with armament. The whole lot—delegates and their accompanying gorillas—are being put up at Claridge’s, no less! The Frogs have got the Savoy, of course. The Italians demanded the Ritz, but we stood firm on that one. And that’s where you come in. I know Bacchus. Educated and plausible as they come on the surface, but not a great deal of social sensitivity. In fact, at heart—pure thug. He’d have Kingstone in an armlock and waltzed off to the Tower in minutes on any pretext or none. And no one would call Bacchus a man of the world …”
The commissioner had stirred uneasily. “Er … you have, shall we say—and you must not take any offence because none is intended, my boy—a certain reputation for sophisticated relations with the opposite sex. A way with the women. A gift shared and enjoyed by Senator Kingstone, if we are to believe rumour—and the press, of course. Whereas Bacchus is something of a Sir Gawain—or was it Galahad? You know, the virginal one—as far as I can make out. Bit of a Puritan outlook on life and censorious of those who do not share it.”
Joe wondered where his boss had gotten his information. Not from him certainly.
“You can’t, sir, be suggesting that
should introduce my charge to the delights of London? An evening cutting a rug at the Embassy … picking up a ten quid tart on Conduit Street … going on to a champagne-fuelled trawl through Soho and ending up in a heap under a table at Ciro’s?”
“Would that be your idea of a good night out, Sandilands?” The commissioner sniffed. “No wonder you look a bit rough around the edges of a Monday morning. No, no! Nothing so exciting. I had in mind an evening at the ballet. Do you enjoy the ballet?”
“No, sir. I prefer a musical comedy.”
“Well, you’d better mug up and prepare to show an interest. The Senator is, I’m told, bringing his own distraction with him. Well, ‘bringing’ is not exact. She’ll be here already in London before he arrives. And she’s a dancer. Classical variety.” He flicked an eye at his notes and took a run at it: “Natalia Kirilovna. Miss Kirilovna’s appearing at the Alhambra early next month with the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. Taking the prima ballerina’s part in
. Is that the one with the swans in it? No? Better get hold of some tickets anyway.”
“Good lord! I’m sure I’ve read about her in
. Isn’t that the girl who had a liaison with a French ambassador recently? A German general … an American saxophonist …”
“Yes, yes. We could go on. And I don’t want to hear she’s inscribed the name of a Scottish policeman in her leather-backed trophy book from
. Surprised she finds the time and the energy. Demanding profession, ballet dancing. But the point is, it will be up to you to
this situation. Carryings-on behind closed Claridge’s doors, of course, I’d say it’s none of our business. But this girl has a reputation for plain speaking, some might say titillating directness, in her conversations with the gentlemen of the press amongst whom she has many friends. She’s ruined one or two reputations. Gag her. Should it become necessary.”
“I’ll remember that the eyes of the world are on London, sir.” Joe tried to keep his tone light but dutiful.
The commissioner’s expression changed from gently cynical to deeply serious. He got to his feet in sudden agitation and began to pace about the room, staring through the window at
the crowding plane trees in the park. Finally, he turned to Joe again. “The eyes and the hopes, my boy. Of every country. We’re teetering on the brink. We’re suffering a ‘Depression.’ Huh! Sounds like something you can cure with an aspirin and a cup of tea. The word doesn’t begin to give the flavour. ‘Disaster’ would be nearer the mark. We sink or swim, all of us, in every continent, if this World Economic Conference fails. Our contribution is to guarantee that the men who—wisely or not—have been chosen to come riding to the aid of their fellows get a straight run at it and stay the course. No unseating or pulling up short to be tolerated by anyone, however grand. Surveillance must be constant, intelligent and anticipatory.”
“I understand, sir.”
“That’s not to say you will need to be breathing down your protégé’s neck the whole while, of course. Too irritating for both of you. We’ve thoroughly vetted and approved his official meetings, so you needn’t trail about after him everywhere he goes. Just keep a nose to the wind if he strays into uncharted territory. Sets up a clandestine meeting, that sort of thing.”
“Indeed. And in support, I shall have …?”
“Even you have to sleep sometimes, Sandilands. Pick your team. I imagine you’ll be using Cottingham again?”
“He would be my first choice.”
The commissioner sighed in irritation. “This circus is going to vastly reduce our manpower. I’ve had to cancel all leave. Why couldn’t they have staged it in Paris?”
“The Branch, sir?”
“Will, of course, be fully deployed and liaising with you as usual. No mucking about. Many men on the ground. Our top brass—that’s you and your fellows—are the tip of the iceberg, their appearance the visible signal that we are taking the security of our foreign guests very seriously. Just for once I shall not object to the sight of your ugly mug on the front pages of the rags. Rather
you than me, eh? The gentlemen of the press seem to have chosen you as the acceptable face of Scotland Yard.” He paused and shot a long, considering gaze at Joe. “Well, I suppose one sees why. You’re still young and active and, er, of distinctive appearance … Look, Sandilands, just for once, my advice would be not to hide. Tip your hat and smile at the rogues as you leave Claridge’s. Let the public know we’ve got the problem covered.”
“Is this public fandango to be my priority, sir? And if so—for how long?”
The commissioner thought for a moment and then gave the answer Joe was hoping for. “Use your own judgement, Sandilands. I suggest that, having made a showing and evaluated the situation, you get back to your relaxing CID duties. Just keep a watchful eye out.”
“Well, let’s pray for civilised behaviour and good weather, shall we?”
The commissioner nodded, understanding. A fine hot summer always saw a dip in the crime rate in the capital.
“And, to ensure that you and the other members of what the press are happy to call the ‘Yard Heavies’ have the very best chance of an informed handling of the lively characters under their protection, I shall be arranging for you to have preparatory discussions with a selection of economists and politicians who are standing by. To put you in the picture. How do you stand on world affairs these days, Sandilands?”
“Not exactly in the dark. But I should appreciate some inside information if that’s what’s on offer. Forewarned is forearmed and all that. And one can only glean a certain amount from page ten of the
The commissioner nodded. “I hear from those who would know that you turned down a career in diplomacy when it was dangled before you some years ago. Our gain, I’m sure. And now the Met may find itself glad of your skills and interests.”
“I’m a copper, sir. More comfortable in boots than patent leather dancing shoes. I’ll do what I can.”
This diplomatic disclaimer appeared to satisfy his boss. He got down to business. “The show opens with a speech by King George into a BBC microphone—gold plated, if you can believe!—on June the twelfth. He will be addressing the world using the new radio links to the continents. New York and Delhi will hear him at the precise moment he speaks.”
“That leaves me a week to prepare then.”
“Rather less. Kingstone is scheduled to meet you slightly in advance. He’s arriving the week before, when he has several meetings scheduled. They don’t plunge in, you know, these politicos. By the time the conference opens, they’ll all know each other’s views—all sixty-six countries participating. They’ll have finished their wheeling and dealing and arm wrestling and be ready to present papers containing no surprises. Your man’s looking forward to a relaxing pre-conference session with his ballet dancer before it all kicks off. We’ve booked you an interview with him at his hotel on the Friday before it all breaks loose. At seven thirty
. His aide called it a working breakfast, I believe.” The commissioner rolled his eyes at the ceiling to show his contempt for these new-fangled foreign ways. “Sandilands, I leave you with this thought: no whiff of scandal is to be released. And, above all, no one goes home in a coffin.”