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Early September 1931
MaisieDobbs, Psychologist and Investigator, picked up her fountain pen to sign her name at the end of a final report that she and her assistant, Billy Beale, had worked late to complete the night before. Though the case was straightforward – a young man fraudulently using his uncle's good name to acquire all manner of goods and services, and an uncle keen to bring his nephew back on the straight and narrow without the police being notified – Maisie felt it was time for Billy to become more involved in the completion of a significant document and to take more of an active part in the final interview with a client. She knew how much Billy wanted to emigrate to Canada, to take his wife and family away from London's dark depression, and the cloud of grief that still hung over them following the death of their daughter, Lizzie, almost a year earlier. To gain a good job in a new country he would need to build more confidence in his work and himself, and seeing as she had already made inquiries on his behalf – without his knowledge – she knew greater dexterity with the written and spoken word would be an important factor in his success. Now the report was ready to be delivered before the Christmas holiday began.
"Eleven o'clock, Billy – just in time, eh?" Maisie placed the cap on her fountain pen and passed the report to her assistant, who slid it into an envelope and secured it with string. "As soon as this appointment is over, you should be on your way, so that you can spend the rest of the day with Doreen and the boys – it'll be nice to have Christmas Eve at home."
"That's good of you, Miss." Billy smiled, then went to the door where he took Maisie's coat and his own from the hook.
Maisie packed her document case before reaching under the desk to bring out a wooden orange crate. "You'll have to come back to the office first though."
"What's all this, Miss?" Billy's face was flushed as he approached her desk.
"A Christmas box for each of the boys, and one for you and Doreen." She opened her desk drawer and drew out an envelope. "And this is for you. We had a bit of a rocky summer, but things picked up and we've done quite well – plus we'll be busy in the new year – so this is your bonus. It's all well-earned, I must say."
Billy reddened. "Oh, that's very good of you, Miss. I'm much obliged. This'll cheer up Doreen."
Maisie smiled in return. She did not need to inquire about Billy's wife, knowing the depth of the woman's melancholy. There had been a time, at the end of the summer, when a few weeks spent hop-picking in Kent had put a bloom on the woman's cheeks, and she seemed to have filled out a little, looking less gaunt. But in London again, the routine of caring for her boys and keeping up with the dressmaking and alterations she took in had not lifted her spirits in any way. She ached for the milky softness of her daughter's small body in her arms.
Maisie looked at the clock on the mantelpiece. "We'd better be off."
They donned coats and hats and wrapped up against the chill wind that whistled around corners and blew across Fitzroy Square as they made their way towards Charlotte Street. Dodging behind a horse and cart, they ran to the other side of the road as a motor car came along in the opposite direction. The street was busy, with people rushing this way and that, heads down against the wind, some with parcels under their arms, others simply hoping to get home early. In the distance, Maisie noticed a man – she could not tell whether he was young or old – sitting on the pavement, leaning against the exterior wall of a shop. Even with some yards between them, she could see the grayness that enveloped him, the malaise, the drooping shoulders, one leg outstretched so passers-by had to skirt around him. His damp hair was slicked against his head and cheeks, his clothes were old, crumpled, and he watched people go by with a deep red-rimmed sadness in his eyes. One of them stopped to speak to a policeman, and turned back to point at the man. Though unsettled by his dark aura, Maisie reached into her bag for some change as they drew closer.
"Poor bloke – out in this, and at Christmas." Billy shook his head, and delved down into his coat pocket for a few coins.
"He looks too drained to find his way to a soup kitchen, or a shelter. Perhaps this will help." Maisie held her offering ready to give to the man.
They walked just a few steps and Maisie gasped, for it was as if she was at once moving in slow motion, as if she were in a dream where people spoke but she could not hear their words. She saw the man move, put his hand into the inside pocket of his threadbare greatcoat, and though she wanted to reach out to him, she was caught in a vacuum of muffled sound and constrained movement. She could see Billy frowning, his mouth moving, but could not make him understand what she had seen. Then the sensation, which had lasted but a second or two, lifted. Maisie looked at the man some twenty or so paces ahead of them, then at Billy again.
"Billy, go back, turn around and go back along the street, go back ...."
"Miss, what's wrong? You all right? What do you mean, Miss?"
Pushing against his shoulder to move him away, Maisie felt as if she were negotiating her way through a mire. "Go back, Billy, go back ..."
And because she was his employer, and because he had learned never to doubt her, Billy turned to retrace his steps in the direction of Fitzroy Square. Frowning, he looked back in time to see Maisie holding out her hand as she walked towards the man, in the way that a gentle person might try to bring calm to an enraged dog. Barely four minutes had passed since they walked past the horse and cart, and now here she was ....
The explosion pushed up and outwards into the Christmas Eve flurry, and in the seconds following there was silence. Just a crack in the wall of normal, everyday sound, then nothing. Billy, a soldier in the Great War, knew that sound, that hiatus. It was as if the earth itself had had the stuffing knocked out of it, had been throttled into a different day, a day when a bit of rain, a gust of wind and a few stray leaves had turned into a blood-soaked hell.
"Miss, Miss . . ." Billy picked himself up from the hard flagstones and staggered back to where he had last seen Maisie. The silence became a screaming chasm where police whistles screeched, smoke and dust filled the air and blood was sprayed up against the crumbling brick and shards of glass that was once the front of a shop where a man begged for a few coins outside.
"Maisie Dobbs! Maisie . . . Miss . . ." Billy sobbed as he stumbled forward. "Miss ..." he screamed again.
"Over 'ere, mate. Is this the one you're looking for?"
In the middle of the road a costermonger was kneeling over Maisie, cradling her head in one hand and brushing blood away from her face with the kerchief he'd taken from his neck. Billy ran to her side.
"Miss ... Miss ..."
"I'm no doctor, but I reckon she's a lucky one – lifted off her feet and brought down 'ere. Probably got a nasty crack on the back of 'er noddle though."
Maisie coughed, spitting dust-filled saliva from her mouth. "Oh, Billy ... I thought I could stop him. I thought I would be in time. If only we'd been here earlier, if only –"
"Don't you worry, Miss. Let's make sure you're all right before we do anything else."
Maisie shook her head, began to sit up and brushed her hair from her eyes and face. "I think I'm all right – I was just pulled right off the ground." She squinted and looked around at the melee. "Billy, we've got to help. I can help these people. . . ." She fell backwards again, then tried to stand.
The costermonger and Billy assisted Maisie to her feet. "Steady, love, steady," said the man, who looked at Billy, frowning, "What's she mean? Tried to stop 'im? Did you know there was a nutter there about to top 'imself – and try to take the rest of us with 'im?"
Billy shook his head. "No, we didn't know. This is my employer. We were just walking to see a customer. Only ...."
"Only what, mate? Only what? Look around you – it's bleeding chaos, people've been 'urt, look at 'em. Did she know this was going to 'appen? Because if she did, then I'm going over to that copper there and –"
Billy put his arm around Maisie and began to negotiate his way around the rubble, away from the screams of those wounded when a man took his own life in a most terrible way. He looked into his interrogator's eyes. "She didn't know until she saw the bloke. It was when she saw him that she knew." Maisie allowed herself to be led by Billy, who turned around to the costermonger one last time. "She just knows, you see. She knows." He fought back tears. "And thanks for helping her, mate." His voice cracked. "Thanks ... for helping her."
"Come on in here, bring her in and she can sit down." The woman called from a shop just a few yards away.
"Thank you, thank you very much." Billy led Maisie into the shop and to a chair, then turned to the woman. "I'd better get back there, see if there's any more I can do."
The woman nodded. "Tell people they can come in here. I've got the kettle on. Dreadful, dreadful, what this world's come to."
Soon the shop had filled with people while ambulances took the more seriously wounded to hospital. And as she sat clutching a cup of tea in her hands, feeling the soothing heat grow cooler in her grasp, Maisie replayed the scene time and again in her mind. She and Billy crossed the road behind the horse and cart, then ran to the curb as a motor came along the street. They were talking, noticing people going by or dashing in and out of shops before early closing. Then she saw him, the man, his leg stretched out, as if he were lame. As she had many times before, she reached into her bag to offer money to someone who had so little. She felt the cold coins brush against her fingers, saw the policeman set off across the street, and looked up at the man again – the man whose black aura seemed to grow until it touched her, until she could no longer hear, could not move with her usual speed.
She sipped her now-lukewarm tea. That was the point at which she knew. She knew that the man would take his life. But she thought he had a pistol, or even poison. She saw her own hand in front of her, reaching out as if to gentle his wounded mind, then there was nothing. Nothing except a sharp pain at the back of her head and a voice in the distance. Maisie Dobbs .... Miss. A voice screaming in panic, a voice coming closer.
Maisie started and almost dropped her cup.
"I'm sorry – I didn't mean to make you jump – your assistant said you were here." Detective Inspector Richard Stratton looked down at Maisie, then around the room. The proprietress had brought out as many chairs as she could, and all were taken. Stratton knelt down. "I was on duty at The Yard when it happened, so I was summoned straightaway. By chance I saw Mr. Beale and he said you witnessed the man take his life." He paused, as if to judge her state of mind. "Are you up to answering some questions?" Stratton spoke with a softness not usually employed when in conversation with Maisie. Their interactions had at times been incendiary, to say the least.
Maisie nodded, aware that she had hardly said a word since the explosion. She cleared her throat. "Yes, of course, Inspector. I'm just a little unsettled – I came down with a bit of a wallop, knocked out for a few moments, I think."
"Oh, good, you found her, then." Stratton and Maisie looked toward the door as Billy Beale came back into the shop. "I've brought back your document case, Miss. All the papers are inside."
Maisie nodded. "Thank you, Billy." She looked up and saw concern etched on Billy's face, along with a certain resolve. Though it was more than thirteen years past, the war still fingered Billy's soul, and even though the pain from his wounds had eased, it had not left him in peace. Today's events would unsettle him, would be like pulling a dressing from a dried cut, rendering his memories fresh and raw.
"Look, my motor car's outside – let me take you both back to your office. We can talk there." Stratton stood up to allow Maisie to link her arm through his, and began to lead her to the door. "I know this is not the best time for you, but it's the best time for us – I'd like to talk to you as soon as we get to your premises, before you forget."
Maisie stopped and looked up at Stratton. "Forgetting has never been of concern to me, Inspector. It's the remembering that gives me pause."
A police cordon now secured the site of the explosion, and though there were no more searing screams ricocheting around her, onlookers had gathered and police moved in and out of shops, taking names, helping those caught in a disaster while out on Christmas Eve. Maisie did not want to look at the street again, but as she saw people on the edge of the tragedy talking, she imagined them going home to their families and saying, "You will never guess what I saw today," or "You've heard about that nutter with the bomb over on Charlotte Street, well ..." And she wondered if she would ever walk down the street again and not feel her feet leave the ground.
Detective Inspector Richard Stratton and his assistant, Caldwell, pulled up chairs and were seated on the visiting side of Maisie's desk. Billy had just poured three cups of tea and filled one large enameled tin mug, into which he heaped extra sugar and stirred before setting it in front of his employer.
"All right, Miss?"
Maisie nodded, then clasped the tea as she had in the shop earlier, as if to wring every last drop of warmth from the mug.
"Better watch it, Miss, that's hot. Don't want to burn yourself."
"Yes, of course." Maisie placed the mug on a manila folder in front of her, and as she released her grip, Billy saw red welts on her hands where heat from the mug had scalded her and she had felt nothing.
"How does your head feel now?" Richard Stratton's brows furrowed as he leaned forward to place his cup and saucer on the desk, while keeping his eyes on Maisie. The two had met almost three years earlier, when Stratton was called in at the end of a case she had been working on. The policeman, a widower with a young son, had at one point entertained a romantic notion of the investigator, but his approach had been nipped in the bud by Maisie, who was not as adept in her personal life as she was in her professional domain. Now their relationship encompassed only work, though as an observer, it was clear to Billy that Richard Stratton had a particular regard for his employer, despite it being evident that she had brought him to the edge of exasperation at times – not least because her instincts were more finely honed than his own. Regardless, Stratton's respect for Maisie was reciprocated, and she trusted him.
Maisie reached with her hand to touch the back of her head, a couple of inches above her occipital bone. "There's a fair-sized bump ..." She ran her fingers down to an indentation in her scalp, sustained while she was working as a nurse during the war. The scar was a constant reminder of the shelling that had not only wounded her but had eventually taken the life of Simon Lynch, the doctor she had loved. "At least it didn't open my war wounds." She shook her head, realizing the irony of her words.
"Are you sure you're up for this?" Stratton inquired, his voice softer.
Caldwell rolled his eyes. "I think we need to get on with it, sir."
Stratton was about to speak, when Maisie stood up. "Yes, of course, Mr. Caldwell's right, we should get on."
Billy looked down at his notebook, the hint of a grin at the edges of his mouth. He knew there was no love lost between Maisie and Caldwell, and her use of "Mr." instead of "Detective Sergeant" demonstrated that she may have been knocked out, but she was not down.
"I'll start at the beginning ..." Maisie began to pace back and forth, her eyes closed as she recounted the events of the morning, from the time she had placed the cap on her pen, to the point at which the explosion ripped the man's body apart, and wounded several passersby.
"Then the bomb –"
"Mills Bomb," Billy corrected her, absently interrupting as he gazed at the floor watching her feet walk to the window and back again, the deliberate repetitive rhythm of her steps pushing recollections onto center stage in her mind's eye.
"Mills bomb?" Stratton looked at Billy. Maisie stopped walking.
"What?" Billy looked up at each of them in turn.
"You said Mills Bomb. Are you sure it was a Mills Bomb?" Caldwell licked his pencil's sharp lead, ready to continue recording every word spoken.
"Look, mate, I was a sapper in the war – what do you mean, 'Are you sure?' If you go and fire off a round from half a dozen different rifles, I'll tell you which one's which. Of course I know a Mills Bomb – dodgy bloody things, saw a few mates pull out the pin and end up blowing themselves up with one of them. Mills Bomb – your basic hand grenade."
Stratton lifted his hand. "Caldwell, I think we can trust Mr. Beale here." He turned to Billy. "And it's not as if it would be difficult for a civilian to obtain such ordnance, I would imagine."
"You're right. There's your souvenir seekers going over to France and coming back with them – a quick walk across any of them French fields and you can fill a basket, I shouldn't wonder. And people who want something bad enough always find a way, don't they?"
"And he hadn't always been a civilian." Maisie took her seat again. "Unless he'd had an accident in a factory, this man had been a soldier. I was close enough to judge his age – about thirty-five, thirty-six– and his left leg was in a brace, which is why people had to walk around him, because he couldn't fold it inwards. And the right leg might have been amputated."
"If it wasn't then, it is now," Caldwell spoke absently as he noted Maisie's comment.
"If that's all, Inspector, I think I need to go home. I'm driving down to Kent this evening, and I think I should rest before I get behind the wheel."
Stratton stood up, followed by Caldwell, who looked at Maisie and was met with an icy gaze. "Of course, Miss Dobbs," said Stratton. "Look, I would like to discuss this further with you, get more impressions of the man. And of course we'll be conducting inquiries with other witnesses, though it seems that even though you were not the closest, you remember more about him."
"I will never forget, Inspector. The man was filled with despair and I would venture to say that he had nothing and no one to live for, and this is the time of year when people yearn for that belonging most."
Stratton cleared his throat. "Of course." He shook hands with both Maisie and Billy, wishing them the compliments of the season. Maisie extended her hand to Caldwell in turn, smiling as she said, "And a Merry Christmas to you, Mr. Caldwell."
Maisie and Billy stood by the window and watched the two men step into the Invicta. The driver closed the passenger door behind them, then took his place and maneuvered the vehicle in the direction of Charlotte Street, whereupon the bell began to ring and the motor picked up speed towards the site of the explosion. Barely two hours had elapsed since Maisie saw a man activate a hand grenade inside his tattered and stained khaki greatcoat.
Turning to her assistant, she saw the old man inside the young. What age was he now? Probably just a little older than herself, say in his mid-thirties, perhaps thirty-seven? There were times when the Billy who worked for her was still a boy, a Cockney lad with reddish-blonde hair half tamed, his smile ready to win the day. Then at other times, the weight of the world on his shoulders, his skin became gray, his hair lifeless and his lameness – the legacy of a wartime wound – was rendered less manageable. Those were the times when she knew he walked the streets at night, when memories of the war flooded back, and when the suffering endured by his family bore down upon him. The events of today had opened his wounds, just as her own had been rekindled. And instead of the warmth and succor of his family, Billy would encounter only more reason to be concerned for his wife, for their children, and their future. And there was only so much Maisie could do to help them.
"Why don't you go home now, Billy." She reached into her purse and pulled out a note. "Buy Doreen some flowers on the way, and some sweets for the boys – it's Christmas Eve, and you have to look after each other."
"You don't need to do that, Miss – look at the bonus, that's more than enough."
"Call it danger money then. Come on, take it and be on your way."
"And you'll be all right?"
"I'm much better now, so don't you worry about me. I'll be even better when I get on the road to Chelstone. My father will have a roaring fire in the grate, and we'll have a hearty stew for supper – that's the best doctoring I know."
"Right you are, Miss." Billy pulled on his overcoat, placed his flat cap on his head, and left with a wave and a "Merry Christmas!"
As soon as Maisie heard the front door slam shut when Billy walked out into the wintry afternoon, she made her way along the corridor to the lavatory, her hand held against the wall for support. She clutched her stomach as sickness rose up within her and knew that it was not only the pounding headache and seeing a man kill himself that haunted her, but the sensation that she had been watched. It was as if someone had touched her between her shoulder blades, had applied a cold pressure to her skin. And she could feel it still, as she walked back to the office, as if those icy fingertips were with her even as she moved.
Sitting down at her desk, she picked up the black telephone receiver and placed a telephone call to her father's house. She hoped he would answer, for Frankie Dobbs remained suspicious of the telephone she'd had installed in his cottage over two years ago. He would approach the telephone, look at it, and cock his head to one side as if unsure of the consequences of answering the call. Then he would lift the receiver after a few seconds had elapsed, hold it a good two inches from his ear and say, with as much authority as he could muster, "Chelstone three-five-double two – is that you, Maisie?" And of course, it was always Maisie, for no one else ever telephoned Frankie Dobbs.
"That you, Maisie?"
"Of course it is, Dad."
"Soon be on your way, I should imagine. I've a nice stew simmering, and the tree's up, ready for us to decorate."
"Dad, I'm sorry, I won't be driving down until tomorrow morning. I'll leave early and be with you for breakfast."
"What's the matter? Are you all right, love?"
She cleared her throat. "Bit of a sore throat. I reckon it's nothing, but it's given me a headache and there's a lot of sickness going round. I'm sure I'll be all right tomorrow."
"I'll miss you." No matter what he said, when it was into the telephone receiver, Frankie shouted, as if his words needed to reach London with only the amplification his voice could provide. Instead of a soft endearment, it sounded as if he had just given a brusque command.
"You too, Dad. See you tomorrow then."
Maisie rested for a while longer, having dragged her chair in front of the gas fire and turned up the jets to quell her shivering. She placed another telephone call, to the client with whom she and Billy were due to meet this morning, then rested again, hoping the dizziness would subside so that she felt enough confidence in her balance to walk along to Tottenham Court Road and hail a taxi-cab. As she reached for her coat and hat, the bell above the door rang, indicating that a caller had come to the front entrance. She gathered her belongings, and was about to turn off the lights, when she realized that, in the aftermath of today's events, Billy had forgotten the box of gifts for his family. She turned off the fire, settled her document case on top of the gifts and switched off the lights. Then, balancing the box against her hip, she locked her office and walked with care down the stairs leading to the front door, which she pulled open.
"I thought you might still be here." Richard Stratton removed his hat as Maisie opened the door.
She turned to go back up to the office. "Oh, more questions so soon."
He reached forward to take the box, and shook his head. "Oh, no, that's not it.... Well, I do have more questions, but that's not why I'm here. I thought you looked very unwell. You must be concussed – and you should never underestimate a concussion. I left Caldwell in Charlotte Street and came back. Come on, my driver will take you home, however, we're making a detour via the hospital on the way – to get that head of yours looked at."
Maisie nodded. "I think you've been trying to get my head looked at for some time, Inspector."
He held open the door of the Invicta for her to step inside the motor car. "At least you weren't too knocked out to quip, Miss Dobbs."
As they drove away, Maisie looked through the window behind her, her eyes scanning back and forth across the square, until her headache escalated and she turned to lean back in her seat.
"No, nothing. It's nothing."
Nothing except a feeling between her shoulder blades that had been with her since this morning. It was a sense that someone had seen her reach out to the doomed man, had seen their eyes meet just before he pulled the pin that would ignite the grenade. Now she felt as if that same someone was watching her still.
Stupid, stupid, stupid, foolish man. I should have known, should have sensed he was on the precipice. I never thought the idiot would take his own life. Fool. He should have waited. Had I not told him that we must bide our time? Had I not said, time and again, that we should temper our passion until we were heard, until what I knew gave us currency? Now the only one who knows is the sparrow. An ordinary gray little thing who comes each day for a crumb or two. He knows. He listens to me, waits for me to tell him my plans. And, oh, what plans I have. Then they will all listen. Then they'll know. I've called him Croucher. Little sparrow Croucher, always there, sing-song Croucher, never without a smile. I have a lot to tell him today.
The man closed his diary and set down his pencil. He always used pencil, sharpened with a keen blade each morning and evening, for the sound of a worn lead against paper, the surrounding wood touching the vellum, scraping back and forth for want of sharpening, set his teeth on edge, made him shudder. Sounds were like that. Sounds made their way into your body, crawled along inside your skin. Horses hooves on wet cobblestones, cartwheels whining for want of oil, the crackle and snap as the newspaper boy folded the Daily Sketch. Thus he always wrote using a pencil with a long, sharp but soft lead, so he couldn't hear his words as they formed on the page.
Copyright © 2008 by Jacqueline Winspear