Saturday, June 16, 2007
BLOOD MOON OVER BRITAIN
Some return from the fields of glory . . .
Scottish traditional song
“You don't want to go in there, guv. Bloody mess, it is.”
Alistair Fielding snapped shut his Special Branch identification holder and returned it to the breast pocket of his tweed blazer. The rank odour of stale blood brought back the memories with a merciless clarity.
“Aye, well, Sergeant, we all must do things we find distasteful nowadays,” he said and entered the bathroom. It was large, probably a redesigned dressing room, and bare. A cold radiator hugged the far wall and beside it, a deep-bowled pedestal sink, with an age spotted mirror hanging above it.
A claw foot tub occupied the centre of the room. Fielding felt his jaw clench and forced himself to keep his eyes open. Enduring four days of butchery and slaughter on the beach at Dunkirk could not inure him to human suffering. At least it didn't look as if this poor sod suffered long.
The tub was full to the rim with blood and water. A foot dangled over the end and an arm hung over the side. A vertical gash ran from the wrist to nearly the elbow, and although it no longer dripped, the evidence on the floor clearly attested that it had for some time.
Fielding skirted the pool of congealed blood and stepped to the head of the bath tub. The dead man's glassy eyes stared sightlessly at the wall opposite and his nose rested on the surface of the water. His skin was pallid, waxen. Rigour had come and gone. He'd been dead at least two days. Maybe more as the flat was ruddy cold.
“It's a suicide, guv, plain as the nose on your face.” The middle-aged sergeant still stood in the doorway, a dubious look etching his plump features. “Don't see the need for Special Branch to muck about with some poor tosser cockin' up his own toes.”
Fielding shot him a warning look. “It's not your concern why I'm here, Sargeant. Let it suffice that I am.” He tugged the victim's head backward by the hair and thumbed the eyelids fully open, examining the pupils. The motion set the water in the bath tub gently lapping at the sides, revealing the well healed stump of what remained of the man's right leg.
Shutting his own eyes and steeling himself, Fielding bent close to sniff the mouth of the corpse. He stepped back hastily, fished for the handkerchief in his pocket, and took a deep breath through it. “Who found the body and when?”
“His cousin, about an hour ago. A Miss Winterborne. She's in the sitting room now. A bit shaky, she is.”
“Did she touch anything? Did you, Sargeant ~?”
“Cummings, Sir. Shouldn't think she'd want to, and I certainly didn't.”
Probably hadn't even entered the room, Fielding thought as he bent, peering under the tub. He picked up the carving knife by the handle using his handkerchief. It was black and crusted with dried blood. “Find a bag to secure this.”
The sargeant made a choking sound and fled. He returned a moment later with a canvass shopping sack, hesitating at the threshold. Fielding dropped the knife into the sack and closed the loo door behind him. “No one enters that room, is that clear, Sargeant? Now show me the cousin.”
Cummings led him down the dark corridor and opened the door to the sitting room. Painted a cheery yellow in a bygone era, now it appeared drab and colourless in the lengthening shadows of the late afternoon. A layer of dust clung to the utility furniture and no ornaments adorned the room save for a few old hunt scenes hanging on the wall. The fireplace was empty and cold.
At first he didn't see her, and then he wondered how he could have ever missed her. She sat straight and motionless in a ladder back chair, staring out the window at the rain. The one spot of colour in the musty room, then she turned the full power of her stunning beauty toward him.
Hair, a vivid auburn, waved back from the translucent skin of her forehead in tall Victory rolls, high Nordic cheek bones, a sharply defined chin, delicate brows, and lips that looked as if they were still red and swollen from kissing her lover.
“Miss Winterborne, I'm Inspector Alistair Fielding, Scotland Yard.” Something murky in her dark blue eyes flickered, but was instantly gone. “I realise you've had a difficult day. I'll do my damnedest not to prolong it, but I have a question or two.”
She placed the plain white cup and saucer she'd been cradling in her lap on the window sill with a clatter, and turned her serene gaze on him.
Miss Winterborne was either frightened or hiding something. He wondered which it was.
* * *
Cicely turned toward the Metropolitan Police Inspector with the gravelly Scottish voice. This Scotsman had missed his calling. He could have made a fortune as a matinee idol or even a professional rugby player for that matter. He stood several inches over six feet and weighed 15 stone at least. His features were chiselled, proud, and aristocratic. Black hair quarrelled with his effort to ruthlessly slick it down. A slight cleft marked his chin. He stared at her with fathomless dark brown eyes. A poet's eyes. But a soldier's bearing. He frowned slightly and reached into his smartly tailored wool trouser pocket for his cigarettes.
Her perusal complete, she replied with a twist of her lips. “'Difficult', Inspector Fielding, is discovering a ladder in one's last pair of pre-war silk stockings. 'Difficult' is queuing for hours at the butcher's and then being turned away empty handed. 'Difficult' is a rather an anaemic word to describe my day. Harrowing is far more appropriate, Inspector.”
Standing, Cicely turned her back to him and gazed out the rain lashed window. The bitter November wind blew in through cracks in the casement and she shivered. Charcoal clouds massed on the horizon threatening a thunder and lightening storm. Her hands gripped tightly at her waist. She nearly jumped when Fielding spoke.
“Cigarette?” he offered. She hadn't heard him approach and now he towered over her, so closely she could smell his sandalwood cologne, feel his body heat, and see the individual whiskers of his late afternoon beard.
After she pulled a cigarette from the extended box, he clicked open a silver lighter. His eyes drew hers like a magnate over the flame. As soon as the tobacco caught, she stepped to the fireplace and stared into the empty grate, exhaling a cloud of smoke.
“When did you last see your cousin, Miss Winterborne?” Fielding remained by the window.
“Five days ago – Friday. Graham and I took the train down from Buckinghamshire together. We work – in different departments, of course – in a supply directory in Bucks.” Cicely flicked ash from her cigarette into the grate and swung around to face him. “We decide who receives what. Usually, although not always, we stay at the Directory during the week and come down to London at the weekends. He hasn't shown up for work this week, nor answered his phone, so I arranged for a bit of leave to check on him.”
His gaze rested on her speculatively. “You and Graham were close? Maybe you are aware of his reason for taking his own life?”
Cicely threw her unfinished cigarette into the fireplace. “Just what is this bosh about, Inspector? My cousin committed suicide. What is Scotland Yard doing mucking about with some poor sod who split open his wrists? Have you nothing better to do? Able bodied men are desperately needed; you might sign up for service!”
Fielding shot her a gimlet look and snapped, “Aye lass, you see there's this wee bit of annoying shrapnel lodged in my knee, left over from an exploding bomb on the beach at Dunkirk. HMG sent me back to my former profession and sees I generate enough bumf to justify my existence.” He switched on a lamp and sat on the shabby plaid chesterfield, stretching out his left leg. “So why don't you do your patriotic duty and keep me busy tonight.”
She froze at the words she and every other young woman heard from the soldiers. Especially the oversexed, overpaid, and over here Americans at the Women's Voluntary Services dances, in the Underground, and at the shops. But Fielding wasn't even looking at her - he was rubbing his left knee.
She lifted her chin, gave her hair a quick pat and said, “My apologies, Inspector.” Taking a deep breath, she said, “You-you saw his - what remained of Graham's leg?” At his nod, she continued. “He lost it at Dunkirk. They discovered him on that bloody beach beneath a pile of dead bodies, Inspector Fielding. It was no longer an evacuation when they found him, but a recovery. For four days he lay in his own blood and that of his fellow soldiers. His entire company perished – except for him. For two and half years he's found it . . . 'difficult'”, she threw Fielding's word back at him, “to live with.”
Making her way to the opposite end of the room, Cicely opened Graham's drinks cabinet, extracted a nearly empty bottle of Hennessy VSOP and poured herself two fingers. The bottle hovered over a second glass. “Inspector?” He shook his head and she shrugged, taking a long sip. Fire slicked down to her stomach and expanded in her veins like lava, giving her courage. A fool's courage. She took another sip.
“No, we weren't particularly 'close', Mr. Fielding. Graham didn't let anyone close to him. Always a bit of a loner, he was. No siblings and his parents emigrated to Canada before the war. None of them shared a particular fondness for pen and paper. Besides my parents in Cornwall, he's the only family left to me.” She shrugged again. “He needed to feel useful after Dunkirk, so I arranged a job at my place of employment.” And if she hadn't, Cicely thought bitterly, he might still be alive. She drained her glass.
The door to the sitting room burst open bringing in a draft of chilly air and a tall, thin brunette in an Air Raid Precaution uniform. She strode straight to Cicely and engulfed her in an embrace. “Cicely! You poor thing! How frightfully dreadful! I came as soon as I received your telephone call.”
Monty's sympathy nearly threatened Cicely's hard won composure, but she hugged her back, then broke free, blinking her eyes against gathering tears.
“And you are?” Fielding's voice cut across the room like a lancet. He rose from the chesterfield.
Monty started and whirled round. Lifting a hand to her hair, she eyed him boldly. Monty loved men. Especially tall, dark, handsome men in uniform. Cicely didn't think the lack of the latter really mattered in this case.
Cicely set her empty glass on the drinks cabinet. “This is Monetary Smith, my flatmate, Inspector. This is Inspector Fielding of Scotland Yard, Monty.”
Monty extended her hand and approached Fielding with a sparkle in her eye. “So pleased to meet you, Inspector. . .” Her step faltered and her hand fell to her side when Fielding merely regarded her with a flat stare. She frowned and retraced her steps. “Why is Scotland Yard responding to a suicide?”
“Apparently we are to answer his questions, dear, not the other way. Well, Inspector,” Cicely said, a cheeky tone to her voice now the liquor was taking effect, “you must be feeling quite useful now there's two of us to keep you busy. What may we do for you?”
Monty's brows lifted in askance and Fielding frowned darkly. Cicely knew she was out of line and didn't care. She wanted out of Graham's flat. She needed someplace safe to gather her thoughts, to think what to do. But where was safe?
“You may go now, Miss Winterbourne,” Fielding said slowly. “Our conversation can wait a day or two.”
“An excellent idea.” Monty took Cicely by the arm and threw Fielding an annoyed glare over her shoulder. “Come on, old girl, we have just enough time before my shift for a nice cup of tea.”
Outside on the pavement, Cicely gathered the collar of her wool coat around her neck against an icy east wind. Thunder boomed in the distance. Nearly everybody looked apprehensively at the sky and scuttled for shelter. Except for two men across the street. Cicely spotted one, directly adjacent, dressed as a labourer, leaning against the wall of a newsagent's, leisurely smoking a fag. Catching her eye, he glanced quickly away. The other chap, sporting a mac and a trilby, half a block behind, scrutinised a toy store window.
Monty started to run. “Come on, old girl, the Underground's just around the corner,” she called. “If we hurry, we shan't be soaked.”
They boarded the train at King's Cross, and ten minutes later disembarked at Russell Square, making their way south toward the British Museum. Normally in the late afternoon, light would be glowing between the enormous pillars and students, scholars, and tourists pouring in and out. But it was wartime, a repository had been bombed two years before, and the massive building stood empty, the Empire's treasures evacuated. With blackout in effect the pillars were shrouded in shadow and surrounded by sand bags. Few people came and went now. The blackout made a winter night even longer. Only the dimmest possible illumination was allowed at dark. Otherwise cities and towns made easy targets to German bombers and enabled clear navigation for enemy pilots.
Across the street, the Museum Pub made up for the museum's lack of custom. Although it too, was piled high with sand bags and it's windows painted black, the sounds of singing and tinkling glasses leaked out, following them two doors down where they entered an arched doorway.
Just as they ducked in and mounted the wide concrete steps to their flat thunder boomed, exploding like a Jerry bombing raid. The sky opened in torrents of rain.
The second floor landing was narrow with a flat at either end and a blacked out window in the centre. Cicely slotted a key into the lock of the right flat. Inside it was dark and draughty, and after hanging their coats, the girls went straight to the kitchen.
“Brr, the Aga needs turning up.” Cicely rubbed her upper arms and headed for the bright yellow stove.
Monty pulled a ladder back chair back from their small dining table. “Sit. You've had a frightful shock. I'll feed you bikkies and tea before my shift and you can fill me in on the details – that is if you are up to it, old girl.” She filled the kettle from the tap and set in on the burner. “That Inspector chap was a nice bit of alright.” She shot Cicely a speculative look. “He didn't seem interested in me, worse luck, but I glimpsed a touch of curiosity about you.”
Cicely rolled her eyes and settled herself in the chair. “Really Monty! Don't your RAF chaps keep you busy?”
Monetary shrugged. “At this point I could likely teach the green ones to fly a Spitfire or a Hurricane - and I haven't seen the cockpit of either one. I've decided to try Americans for a change of pace. Besides, they're such fun to listen to – 'Hey Princess, aren't you just a livin' doll'. And the chocolate!” She winked. “They couldn't possibly eat all those Hershey bars by themselves.” She reached into the cupboard for the tea tin, measured out two tiny pinches, then turned around, leaning on the counter and folding her arms across her chest. “Now then, why did Graham do such an awful thing? Who did he think would find him if not you?”
Cicely propped her elbows on the table, resting her face in her hands. She kept seeing Graham as she had found him: naked, pale, and so still, in a bathtub full of blood. She wanted to block out the sight and the smell, but was afraid it would never go away, never leave her in peace. She must move past the shock. And discover just what Graham had known.
Taking a deep breath, Cicely said, “He must have reached his breaking point. I wasn't due back from Bletchley until the weekend - for three more days. Likely it occurred to him his cleaning lady might find ~” she started as the kettle screamed.
“Ballocks.” Monty turned to pour the boiling water into the teapot. “He may not have nurtured any closeness between you, but he knew bloody well if he didn't turn up for work for several days, you'd come down to London to see why.” She brought the tea and a plate of vanilla biscuits to the table. Pausing, she looked carefully at Cicely. “Might it have anything to do with . . . with your work? I'm aware ~” She swallowed and started over. “Mums the word, of course, but I know you don't ruddy well work in a supply distribution centre at Bletchley.”
Cicely froze, then lowered her tea cup. She searched her dearest friend's face. “Why would you not think I distribute supplies?” She gave a small laugh. “Goodness, you don't imagine I'm into the cloak and dagger stuff?” Monty stared at her. “Really, Monty! It's all these spy propaganda posters. My job is quite innocent, I assure you. And dull. I'm a file clerk.” That much was true, at least. But it wasn't dull and it wasn't innocent.
Monty continued to regard her with a speculative gleam over the rim of her teacup. “I'm no boffin, but I know when I hear a load of double Dutch. I realise you can't blow the gaff. We'll say no more about it.” She swallowed the last of her tea and stood. “If any hypothetical situations arise and you need to talk, you have a sympathetic – and discreet listener. Now I'm off for my shift, keeping an eye out for the Hun in the sky,” she said, lifting her hand in a playful salute.
When the door slammed behind Monty, Cicely rose from her chair, flipped off the light switch, and made her way in the gloom to the window. Very carefully she lifted the tight fitting black out blind and peered outside.
Heavy clouds and pelting rain contributed to an early darkness. The street lights were dimmed and the few vehicles out burning petrol wore shields over their lamps, allowing a mere pinprick of illumination.
Monty ran across the road, her neck hunched into her collar and her mac flying out behind her from the force of the wind. She dashed right by a man leaning against the iron spike fence surrounding the museum. He wore a trench coat and a trilby pulled low over is face.
Cicely's gaze darted in every direction. Not many ventured out in the blackout. The few who did, hurried to find shelter, or had already found it in shop doorways.
She glanced back at the man in the trench coat. He'd pushed his trilby to the back of his head and was staring up at her. Rain poured down his face, but he didn't blink. Cicely felt those eyes burn through her like red-hot daggers. Finally, he righted his hat and strode away, enveloped in blackness and a torrent of rain.
She jumped when the loud banging on her door started.