Coffin's Ghost

John Coffin Mysteries (Volume 30)

Gwendoline Butler

Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books

1
‘Who was it said that modern detective stories never have the murder of children in them?’ John Coffin asked from his hospital bed. Then he answered himself: ‘Graham Greene. And how wrong he was. Can’t have read many.’
‘Don’t be so grumpy.’ Stella Pinero had brought him in a selection of detective stories which lay scattered on the bed. She had also brought him in a local newspaper with her photograph and her description as ‘the love of his life’. This irritated him too, although Stella, ever the realist, said what good publicity for both of them it was. ‘Won’t do anything for me,’ he had grumbled, still grumpy.
‘You’d be grumpy with a hole in your liver.’
It was healing nicely though, and someone had once told him that you could spare as much as half your liver.
He wondered who had told him that.
Not Graham Greene.
He turned over the books. Policemen don’t read crime novels. They might write them but not read other people’s. Except in training, which doesn’t count.
‘The Handbag,’ he said aloud in a tone of deep scepticism. ‘Doesn’t sound like a crime novel. Simenon, perhaps. More like Oscar Wilde.’
He began to feel better. Nothing like a grumble. But he remembered The Handbag. It worried him for some reason. Stuck in his memory.
‘I am going to have a wonderfully happy domestic time,’ announced Stella Pinero, wife to John Coffin, with a wonderfully happy smile. She was a good actress.
In fact, she was more than a little depressed. She was well aware that she had almost lost her husband, and had gained the shocking knowledge that without him she would lose half herself.
Now this was something she had never believed possible. It was important now not to let him share this knowledge.
‘I am going to stay home, and enjoy my unusual leisure.’
What she meant was that she had no stage performance at the moment, no television play contracted, and nothing on the radio: in short, she had no work. To cheer herself up and as a homecoming present for Coffin, she had had a large window put in to the ground floor of the strong-minded tower in which they lived. It lit up a very dark area which must be a good thing, even if some might count it a security risk. You need light, she told herself, to be happy and it has to be natural light, not the electric sort.
She was reluctant to count no work as a holiday. Anyway, with an expensive daughter whose career she was, to a certain extent, subsidizing, money was always useful. The daughter was the child of an earlier marriage, not Coffin’s. The two were on friendly terms, and liked each other in a wary kind of way. They needed to get to know each other better, Stella understood this very well, but opportunity did not often come their way, since her child was a hopeful producer of films, having graduated from acting, and had little time to spare in her ambitious life. And Coffin always had MURDER. Stella put it in capital letters since it was spelt that way in her mind. Bright red, too, and occasionally flashing with lights.
It was early evening, on the very day Coffin, although forbidden to do so by the doctors, had gone back to work. A pile of letters, a pile of reports, nothing on the answerphone because his efficient secretary had dealt with those. E-mail was loaded but could be ignored.
One telephone call got through while Sheila was dealing with the printer which had stuck. He could hear her in the other room, swearing gently.
‘Hello, Albie Touchey here.’
But he had recognized the voice.
‘Glad you got out.’
It made it sound as if out of prison. Not remarkable since he was the governor of the Sisley Green Prison in the Second City.
‘Always meant to, Albie.’
Touchey was a small, well-muscled figure, a tough terrier of a man. The unlikely friends had one thing in common: criminals.
Coffin and Co. sent them to prison and Touchey eventually shovelled them out.
But they had something else in common: they were both South Londoners and had, for a time, lived in the same street. They had not known each other in those days; Touchey had attended the local grammar school and Coffin had been a pupil at what he called Dotheboys Hall.
But the two had met at a civic dinner and become friends over the whisky and the port.
‘That’s what my lodgers always say. As if I fancied to keep them. I don’t make favourites, you know. Move ‘em on as soon as I can.’
‘I know that.’
Albie was ready for a grumble. ‘You have the easy side, all you have to do is catch ‘em. I have to live with them.
‘The average age of my lot is getting younger and younger. They’ll be bringing their nappies with them soon.’
‘They know you keep a well-run establishment,’ said Coffin. Indeed, Touchey managed to run a humane and orderly prison at Sisley Green.
‘Touch and go, touch and go.’
They chatted for a while.
‘A friend of yours looked in on us while you were in hospital,’ Albie said conversationally. ‘Georgie Freedom.’
‘No friend of mine.’ Stella’s, perhaps. ‘Surprised you let him in. Or out.’
‘Felt like keeping him there but he said, No, he was taking a tour because of a TV series he was planning.’ In fact, Freedom had been inside for a bit while being questioned and was now out pending an appeal.
‘Think of him as a toad,’ said Coffin. ‘We’ll step on him and squeeze him in the end.’
They both knew secrets about each other, small things, nothing much, the sort of thing men say to each other as they drink. Women don’t do this sort of confessing, they only pass on what they want known.
And the governor knew one big secret.
‘Love to Stella,’ said Albie, signing off. ‘I’m going to ask her to put on a Christmas show for the lads.’
‘I’m sure she will.’
‘A great girl, you’re lucky there.’
‘I know it,’ said Coffin.
He was sitting opposite her now in their tower sitting room, where the windows were wide open to catch what there was of moving air. There were windows on both sides, since this had once been a church tower in a church where symmetry was all, thus a smart breeze swept through the room.
There must be a window open on the staircase somewhere. That reminded him of a question.
‘Who was the man just exiting with a vacuum cleaner when I came in? Was it our vacuum cleaner, by the way?’
‘Oh, that was Arthur. No, his machine. He cleans for me now.’
‘What happened to that nice girl? Gill, wasn’t it? She took over after good old Mrs James retired.’
‘Oh, she is having a baby. She only took the job because she wants to be an actress and she thought she would get nearer to me, and when that didn’t happen she decided to have a baby instead.’
‘Oh.’ Coffin hoped the baby would be pleased to be the stand-in for a broom.
‘Arthur and Dave, they have a house-cleaning firm.’
‘Ah.’ Coffin nodded. ‘So Dave was the middle-aged chap in the van outside. I wondered who he was. Why is his face all dirty and dusty?’
‘Hiding behind it,’ said Stella lightly.
‘A handsome chap when you get a look, with those grooves down the side of his nose. Compelling.’
Arthur and Dave had said much the same about their employer as they packed themselves and the brooms into the van marked ‘House Men’.
‘So that’s the Chief Commander,’ Dave had said. ‘Not a bad-looking chap.’
‘Yes, I could fancy him myself.’ Arthur made no secret of his broad band of tastes. ‘But no go – I know others who have tried.’ He’d started the van and they had driven off.
‘Where do they come from?’ demanded Coffin.
‘All checked with your security outfit,’ said Stella. ‘Genuine firm, no bombs. That pair are out-of-work actors, resting anyway, and probably hope I might put a part their way. Arthur has had one or two small parts and Dave’s done some walk-ons.’
‘Where do they live?’ Security was tight round the Chief Commander’s household.
‘Arthur lives in a converted factory across the river in Greenwich with a gang of mates and Dave lives over a café called Stormy Weather.’
Coffin grunted: he knew of the Stormy Weather eating place, which was in a bad part of the town and had a reputation to equal it. It had started out as a simple eating place, then become a hamburger bar and now proclaimed it did the best steaks in town. What Coffin knew was that it smelt of frying fat, cigarette smoke with a hint of something darker but no one had ever caught Jim Billson, the proprietor (he probably didn’t own it, he was reputed to have someone behind him) with any illegal substances. The woman who ran it was, according to Mimsie Marker, the fattest woman in the Second City, and the cook the most drunken. Coffin knew that every so often the Public Health crew, with a drugs man secretly with them, swept in and went over the place, but so far, it had been clean. Cleaner than expected.
‘He hasn’t been with Arthur too long . . . Arthur started it up with a mate who died.’ She frowned. ‘Cancer . . . it may have been AIDS-related,’ she added reluctantly. ‘Dave came in after that. They met in the theatre.’
Coffin grunted again.
‘Anyway, it was too much for Gilly. This is a difficult house to clean. All staircase. Like a lighthouse.’
Coffin was hurt. He liked his house. ‘You ought to have been brought up in a basement like I was.’
He was not showing it, since that would not have been tactful, but he was sympathizing with Stella in her workless state. The Stella Pinero Theatre Complex, in the body of the old St Luke’s Church, which she had founded – and which now included a much smaller experimental theatre and a theatre workshop – was leased out to three companies. The main theatre housed a commercial production of Guys and Dolls which was proving very successful and would be occupying the theatre for another two months, through the summer, while the Theatre Workshop was being used by the University of Spinnergate for its Drama Department.
I told her that she ought to keep at least one of the theatres in her own hands, thought Coffin, studying his loved one’s face, but she was pushed on by Letty who always had her eye on the money bags. And I think Letty was having a money crisis herself at the time, although that is not the sort of information Letty tells you. Laetitia Bingham was his own half-sister, banker and investment panjandrum. But panjandrums have their ups and downs and Letty had suffered with the collapse of the eastern Tiger economies. She was over it now, thank goodness, since an impoverished Letty did not bear thinking about. It was time the iron hand of Letty let one of the theatres go free so that Stella could work. It was her world, after all.
He looked with even more sympathy at his wife, before going back to his mother’s papers. What a woman she had been, not one to stay in a scene, held down by children or husbands, always moving on. It was going to be a good book.
He ran his hand through his hair, mentally assessing (although he would never have admitted to this) whether his recent illness had made for a loss of hair. Felt as thick as ever, thank goodness. Nor was he going grey, or not what you could call grey, or not what he called grey; as a child he seemed to recall it had been what people called auburn, now it was dark with a hint of red in certain lights. Secretly he was pleased with his hair, colour and weight. Stella’s hair changed with her mood and the part she was playing: at the moment it was fair, long and loose. Coffin, who knew her age, thought how well she carried it off.
Naturally, he allowed no hint of this to pass over to Stella.
The Second City Force, of which he was Head and Commander, was not in his mind for the moment, that too had had its ups and downs, but for the moment all was tranquil there.
Of course, experience had taught him that you never knew what was going on underneath the surface, and nothing could make the Second City a completely peaceful place. Just as well, or I’d be out of a job. He had been a police officer all his working life, except for a short period in the army, starting at the bottom and climbing up. No further to go, he said to himself, with a smile, unless he wanted to become one of HM’s Inspectors of Constabulary.
Stella smiled back at him, not one of her professional smiles that meant she wasn’t really seeing him at all, but a real smile that said I am glad you are here.
I don’t know all about you, because we never do, you have your secrets and I am not going to dig for them, but I know I love you.
‘Now I have a little time, I might arrange a dinner for us all. Even cook it . . . No, perhaps not.’ Stella was not interested in cooking and always said that it ruined the hands. An actress could not have bad hands. She would take a table at Max’s and perhaps Coffin’s sister Letty who was so rich and so well, and so often married, would join them. She might put money in a film for her sister-in-law; film makers were always hungry, and rich people, for Letty was rich again, always wanted investments.
She looked across the room to where her husband sat, surrounded by papers and with his laptop on a small table by his side. At last, the long preparation of his mother’s diary and his editing of her letters, more amusing than anyone had expected, was near publication. A young Edinburgh publisher, urged on by Coffin’s half-brother, who was a Writer to the Signet and lived in Old Edinburgh, had offered a contract. The book was ready for the world.
‘George and Robbie are coming in for a meal tonight,’ Stella said, breaking into Coffin’s concentration.
Eventually, he responded. ‘Was that wise?’
‘They’re not too bad if you get them in a good mood. I quite like them really.’ And they are powerful figures in my theatrical world. This she did not say aloud but it was understood by her husband who gave a cheerful grin in return.
‘As long as it’s business.’
The two men had moved into similar apartments in a renovated and restored warehouse in Spinnergate. The building now called The Argosy, was in Rickards Passage and had once housed imports from the East. It still smelt of spices, so George and Robbie claimed. Friends (or enemies, it was sometimes not easy to be sure which) for decades, they were also business associates who worked together in the theatre: George Freedom was the money man and Robbie Gilchrist was on the artistic side, choosing the plays, and then supervising the production. They had had a string of successes. Likewise failures. They had both married the same woman, she had left Gilchrist for Freedom. Coffin wondered about their relationship.
‘Well, good luck to you. Shall I stay home and eat with you or clear off and eat at Max’s?’
It would be the same style of food anyway as Stella had almost certainly ordered the meal from Max’s since this was their local restaurant. Max always did his best for Stella, whom he admired.
‘Oh stay, darling, and give me support. I want to try to launch a Festival of Spinnergate and if they will help it would be an enormous boost. I have already spoken to Robbie and he sounded keen.’
‘If I won’t be in the way.’ He was aware that his presence, what he was and his position, made some people self-conscious, ill at ease in his company. ‘I don’t think they like me much.’
Stella shook her head. ‘That’s their professional look: No like, no trust. I think that’s better than the pros who are all over you, all jovial and friendly, and you know it’s all an act. At least with George and Robbie what you see is what you get.’
Coffin said he would probably enjoy it. ‘Remind me which is which, I get them confused.’
This was not strictly true: he possessed a pretty good idea of George Freedom. They had met. He did not like him. Mutual.
Stella was ready. ‘Freedom is the small, stout one, with a quiff of dark hair. Not a grey hair to be seen.’
‘Dyed?’
‘Probably. But well done. And Robbie is the tall thin one, bald as could be, but he doesn’t seem to mind. He tried a wig once but said it was too hot and itched. That was when he was married to Mariette, it was to please her. Didn’t work, she went off anyway.’
‘He was lucky there,’ said Coffin, who recalled Mariette vividly. Mariette you did not forget.
‘Yes, I think so.’
Stella was silent for a moment, then she said: ‘You heard about Georgie’s problem?’ But of course, he had.
Coffin said, Yes, he had heard.
She said hesitantly: ‘It was when you were ill, so I wondered.’
‘I heard about it, though. I wasn’t ill, just an operation.’ Did he say that aloud? Yes, he obviously did because she answered.
‘Yes, just an operation.’ They opened you up with a sharp knife, saw what the damage was, tidied up a bit of this and that, then closed you up again. A picnic. You enjoyed it.
The operation was made necessary by an attack, but she did not mention this: Coffin was touchy about it.
She was never ill herself. Performers never were. Provided she still had a voice, Stella knew she would crawl on to the stage and do her bit. Voice? Even when that went she would mime her part.
Slowly, she said: ‘George knows he was lucky not to go to prison for much longer.’
Coffin said he had had a good lawyer.
‘Not the end of it, of course. There’s going to be an appeal. Damages, that sort of thing. You wouldn’t think of him as violent, would you? Of course, he isn’t really, he was just unlucky, an accident, a terrible accident, a little push and . . .’ Stella shrugged. ‘She had a thin skull.’
Still has, Coffin pointed out, she wasn’t dead, was she?
‘No, not dead,’ said Stella, ‘but her mind – they call it brain damage . . .’ She shrugged. ‘Then there’s his stepdaughter too. That’s another problem, taken herself off. You know his second wife was Robbie’s wife? Or one of them. So Robbie was her stepfather too and fond of her. It’s complicated. I’m always surprised that Robbie and George still work together. Money, I suppose. Anyway, the stepdaughter took off about the time George got out from his spell in prison. The girl who was hurt was a friend of hers.’
‘She might come back of her own accord, it can happen. Pretty kid, nice long fair hair.’ Not clever, though. Simple.
‘You do know all about it,’ said Stella. Of course you do, you always do, whatever you pretend. Your job.
‘Just heard about it, probably from Mimsie Marker, or someone, and saw a photograph somewhere.’ He looked at Stella. ‘Perhaps I’d better take myself out.’
‘No, don’t.’ She knew, and she understood now that he too knew, that the ‘problem’ which had been mentioned was not what happened to the stepdaughter but what had gone before.
The other accident. Another girl who worked for him.
And the one before that. No official complaint there but all in the dossier.
Freedom was a man to whom accidents happened.
Stella looked at her legs. It was funny about flesh, some days bits of you looked saggy and tired, and other days, they looked good. Today her legs looked trim and neat. Might be the new tights she was wearing from the place in Bond Street. Cost the earth but worth it.
‘I’ll go and put something sleek and flashy on, that’s what they like, those two.’
‘I’ll behave.’ Coffin gave her a wary smile.
Coffin got back to his literary labours which he was enjoying. Nice to be free of crime for a bit. Not that the Second City was ever truly crime-free, any more than any other big city, only at the moment it appeared free from murder, rape, drugs and pornography. Someone’s put the lid on it all for a bit, he told himself cheerfully.