On a muggy August Friday morning, we set out in my 1910 blue Jowett convertible for our 9.30 a.m. appointment.
Jim Sykes, my assistant, is an ex-policeman who endearingly believes he does not look at all like an ex-policeman. He just happens to be lean, mean, and alert as a territorial tom cat. During a ten-day holiday in Robin Hood's Bay with his wife and family, he caught the sun, along with a carefree air that I suspected would not last long.
I braked sharply to let a crazed old woman, raising her stick to stop traffic, hurtle across Woodhouse Lane.
A rag-and-bone cart drew alongside, drawn by a patient shire horse. The lad seated beside the driver pointed at me. He called to Sykes, 'Didn't no one tell you women can't drive?'
Sykes raised his goggles and drew a finger across his throat as he gave the lad a hard stare.
'Let it go,' I said, accelerating away. 'That's threatening behaviour.'
'Threaten? I'll throttle him.'
Sykes finds it hard to let anything go. If he were a duck, the water on his back would sink him.
We bore up manfully as I drove into Leeds city centre and parked outside the double-fronted jeweller's shop on Lower Briggate. Three gold balls above the shop announced its pawnbroker status.
In the plate-glass window, I caught a glimpse of myself. What is the stylish lady detective wearing this season, under her motoring coat? A brown and turquoise silk crepe dress and jacket, copied from a Coco Chanel model, cloche hat and summer gloves echoing the brown. My mother frowns on brown, saying it is too much like wartime khaki sludge, but it suits my pale colouring and chestnut hair.
Jewellers' shops have a subdued air, like churches and banks. This one smelled of lavender polish and chamois leather. The young assistant with neatly combed fair hair and dark suit could easily have worked in a counting house. Head bent in concentration, he showed a tray of rings to a young couple.
Mr Moony, a thin grey-suited man with shining tonsured head, gave us a Mona Lisa smile. He saved the introductions for the small back room.
'One moment!' He disappeared into the shop and returned carrying a chair for me. I am five feet two inches tall. Mr Moony's courtesy in giving me the chair meant that he and Sykes, on high buffets, towered over me. Sykes handled the moment impeccably, concentrating mightily on taking out notebook and pencil.
I prompted Mr Moony to tell us about the incident, which took place last Monday, 21 August, 1922.
He sighed and stroked his chin. 'In my thirty years here, we've never had such a thing happen, or in myfather's time before me.' As he began to tell his tale, he gripped the seat of the buffet. His knuckles turned white. He spoke fluently, having already told the story to the police. 'At about noon, I went out for a stroll and came back half an hour later. My assistant, young Mr Hall, then took a stroll about. I insist on the efficacy of stretching the legs in the middle of the day.' He paused, as if half-expecting some criticism for his theory.
'I do just the same, Mr Moony,' I heard myself lie. 'Only yesterday, I walked from Woodhouse Ridge to Adel Crags.'
The energetic fib refocused Mr Moony on his tale.
'While I was alone here, the chap came in. My one consolation is that I and not young Hall bore the brunt of the outrage.'
On the name Hall, Sykes nudged my ankle with his foot. I kicked him. As if I would not think to ask.
'Has Mr Hall been with you long?'
A five-minute testimonial for young Albert Hall followed. I hoped Sykes was noting this while I concentrated on trying not to get the giggles. What Mrs Hall mother would name her son Albert? Call me Bert. Call me Al. Call me anything but a memorial to the late queen's consort and lost love.
Having fully exonerated his assistant, Mr Moony took a deep breath before continuing his story, eyes narrowing as he remembered the distressing scene. 'The man was about five foot six inches tall, slightly built, something of a stoop, a youngish fellow. He wore a darkish raincoat and a homburg. Had an item to put into pledge, that was his story. Swung out a twenty-two carat gold watch chain and asked for twelve shillings. I completed the paperwork, took the chain and handedhim the money. Transaction completed, I placed the chain in a bag.'
'Can you remember any other details, Mr Moony?'
'It was a warm day. The chap dabbed at his brow with a hanky. And there was this smell when he pulled out the handkerchief ...' He frowned.
'What kind of smell?'
'No. Like polish and roses. The police took no notice of that. The officer who came had no sense of smell, said it could have been the polish on my counters. He claimed a person has a heightened sense of awareness when something unusual or bad happens.'
'So you completed the transaction,' I prompted.
'Yes. I counted out the twelve shillings, put the chain in the bag ...'
'We wished each other good day. He turned to leave the premises. As he did so, I moved to put the bagged item in the safe. The shop bell did not ring immediately. I glanced back, to see whether some item had caught his eye. That sometimes happens, you know.'
Mr Moony stopped, as though reluctant to bring the event back to life. His eye twitched and it took him a few seconds to bring it under control.
I said, 'The police must have been gratified to have so good an account. And what happened next?'
Mr Moony gulped. A great sigh escaped before he could continue. 'He was not by the door at all. He was behind me. Before I had time to close the safe, his hands were round my throat, he'd taken the chain back, flung me to the floor and grabbed everything he could from the safe. By thetime I recovered myself, he was gone. I telephoned the police. A constable was here within minutes. But they've had no luck finding him, or the missing articles. Naturally he gave a false address, in Headingley Lane. The police checked. I noticed you live in Headingley, Mrs Shackleton. I know it seems absurd, but my wife took that as a good sign.'
'Let us hope so.'
Sykes looked up from his notebook. 'Mr Moony, is there anything else that you can tell us, about his features, his colouring, manner, the way he talked?'
Mr Moony shrugged. 'I've tried so hard to picture him that I may well be imagining. But there was something fine about him. I can't put my finger on it. Something refined, so that when he pounced, I was taken completely by surprise. It feels ridiculous to say that and somehow I can't expound on it. There was something of the clerk about him. Perhaps the stoop made me think that. I can't be certain.'
'Local accent?' Sykes asked.
'Well-spoken, in a neutral sort of way. Not local I wouldn't say.'
'And the police will have looked for fingerprints?' I asked.
'Yes, but they drew a blank. To tell you the truth, I have no great hopes of their finding him, or the pledges he took. And that's the terrible thing. If he'd smashed the display case and taken new items, that would have been bad enough. This is worse. It's the trust, you see. My customers will come back to redeem their pledges. What on earth can I say to them?'
Sykes and I exchanged a look. It seemed a slightly unusual job if we were being asked to provide thejeweller with a suitable form of words for his disappointed customers. 'Is that why we're here, Mr Moony?' I asked.
'Well, it would be wonderful if you could find the blighter.'
Sounding more confident than I felt, I said, 'Mr Sykes and I will do our best to recover the goods.'
'The more days go by, the less likely it seems.' Mr Moony reached onto the workbench and took a folder from under a pair of jeweller's pliers. 'This contains a copy of what I gave the police, a list of items taken: set of gold cufflinks and tie pin; three watch chains, two pocket watches, four rings and a bracelet. There's a detailed description next to each item you'll see. It's a terrible thing to lose trust as a pawnbroker. Some of those pieces have great sentimental value. If I have lost them, then I need to inform their owners and make recompense. That calls for discretion. Two of the individuals involved are distressed gentlewomen who have utter confidence in me. One entrusted me with her late mother's ring. I thought that if you, Mrs Shackleton, might be so good as to call in person on the ladies, showing the greatest tact ... and ... explain the situation ...'
I could see why old ladies would trust Mr Moony - the gentle manner, old-world courtesy, his thoughtfulness.
I hid my surprise at being asked to convey messages to Mr Moony's customers. Not exactly what a detective might be expected to do. 'And Mr Sykes here would call on the gentlemen? Is that your wish?'
Mr Moony looked relieved. 'Precisely. Then when they come here on the due date, I can arrange compensation. '
I glanced at the list of names and addresses. 'They are not all local people.'
Mr Moony smiled. 'I am the highest class pawnbroker in the vicinity of the railway station. Gentlefolk sometimes find it embarrassing to go to a local establishment.'
'Then we can begin right away, Mr Moony.' I looked to Sykes for his confirmation.
Sykes nodded. 'Of course.'
'Thank you. What will you think it best to say?'
I tried to imagine myself knocking on doors and explaining the situation. 'Simply the truth about the robbery, without any extraneous details, and to say that if they will come to you with the ticket on the due date, some settlement will be reached, or a replacement item offered. Would that be the best approach?'
'Yes, yes, I think so.' He allowed a note of hope. 'Of course if you or the police do retrieve the goods, then that would be the best outcome.'
'Have the police come back to you?' Sykes asked.
Mr Moony's mournful sigh hit the floor and bounced back. 'Only to say there is nothing to report.' He lowered his head, as if overcome by the shame and embarrassment of his situation. When he looked up, I noticed a kind of desperation around his eyes. He ran his tongue across his thin lips. 'These are the worst, the lowest days of my life. I cannot believe I was so lax as to let this happen to me.'
'I'll take a look around the shop, if I may.' Sykes exited quickly, leaving me to reassure Mr Moony and urge him not to blame himself.
'The watch chain the thief brought to pawn, was there anything distinctive about it?'
'Didn't I say? It had a gold coin attached. That's not so very unusual, but this was a South African coin, a gold pond.'
'That's something to go on,' I said, trying to sound encouraging.
Only several hundred thousand British men had served or worked in South Africa. That narrowed it down.
We discussed terms. Mr Moony had already written a generous cheque as a retainer. I tucked the cheque into my satchel and assured him we would do our very best. He walked us to the shop door.
When the door closed firmly behind us, the memory came back to me of my last visit to Moony's jewellers. I went there to buy a gift for my husband Gerald, before he left for his army training. A surgeon, he had enlisted at the start of the Great War, in a blaze of patriotism and courage. He went missing, presumed dead, in 1918. His disappearance is the mystery I have never solved. He could be alive somewhere, ill or with loss of memory. Because he left me well provided, I can afford to solve other mysteries that barely touch my heart. I bought Gerald a silver hip flask. I carry his old one in my satchel.
Sykes interrupted my thoughts. 'Shall I drive?' he asked.
'No you shan't. Ignore the funny looks and smart remarks. It will be good for your character to glimpse what we women have to put up with.'
A MEDAL FOR MURDER. Copyright © 2010 by Frances McNeil. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.