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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Coffin Knows the Answer

John Coffin Mysteries (Volume 32)

Gwendoline Butler

Minotaur Books


Coffin Knows the Answer

Chapter 1
'What would you call the worst crime in the world?'
Coffin looked towards DCI Phoebe Astley who was studying some notes from a file on his desk. They dealt with a fraud case she had just completed.
They were old friends, Phoebe enjoyed working with him. Coffin was the most stable element in her life which sometimes felt more like a two-way escalator, down and up shifting with speed.
'Oh, I don't know,' said Phoebe absently. 'Kicking your old grandmother down the stairs. Torching her cat. Gassing a million ...' She stopped because the Chief Commander had pushed a photograph in front of her.
'Oh my God.'
'Yes. Six months old.' Under his breath, he muttered something she did not catch. He pushed another photograph towards her. 'He was three years and a bit.'
Phoebe looked sick. In her time as a police officer she had seen plenty of horrors, but children, babies, still hit her hardest. Yes, this was the worst of crimes. One for which she would be willing to kill the perp or perps. That was the other horror, it was a group thing. They needed an audience for their crime.
Coffin flipped another set of pictures towards her. She looked at the photographs on the Chief Commander's desk. The perps needed a record as well, pictures to look at in the bedroom or bathroom at home.
Phoebe looked across to Coffin, now Sir John Coffin, Chief Commander of Police in the Second City of London. He looked tired. She felt tired herself, engaged as she had been in a long investigation now ended with a satisfactory result. Three people committed for trial for fraud and murder. Women too. Women were getting more violent, no doubt about it.
She felt violent herself as she studied the photographs of abused and violated infants.
Then Coffin looked at her and smiled. At once she felt less weary.
'It's good work you've done on the Wantage fraud case, Phoebe,' he said. 'But I may be asking you to take on this paedophile business ... '
'Who else is working on it?'
'Joe Jones and Mercy Adams, but Joe has just been diagnosed with leukaemia and I think that is going to take all his energies for a bit. And apparently Mercy is worried she might be pregnant.'
'Oh.' Phoebe was disconcerted. Joe was a good worker, sometimes tricky to handle, but clever. She had heard that he had come close to a breakdown. She didn't know exactly what that meant but he had sounded pretty rocky. As for Mercy, well she was a widow or divorced so who was the father? (If she was pregnant ... she had had worries before). Was it that young doctor she was so keen on?
'The word is he is going to be all right,' Coffin continued, 'but he needs help.'
What sort of help, Phoebe wondered. 'How will it be if I go to see him? Has anyone else been?'
'Mercy went, of course, she says that his wife has set up a strong protective shield.'
A strong lady, tall and muscular, as Phoebe remembered her, and not much liked by Mercy who was small-boned and pretty. Josephine Jones was handsome but not pretty. She worked in the local hospital, so was well placed to watch over her husband.
Would Mercy mind Phoebe taking over? The answer was certainly yes, but she would have to put up with it. You did not argue with John Coffin in certain moods. Not unless you were his wife, Stella.
'It's all right,' said Coffin, as if he had guessed what she was thinking 'Mercy will co-operate, I've had a word withher, she wants this business cleared up as much as I do.' He put his hands together, staring at them, assessing the fact that two fingernails were broken. 'She's known for some time that Joe was not working at speed.'
'If you think I can do it.' So now she knew why she had been called into his office, given a cup of coffee and left to think about life while he studied the file of papers and photographs. She could see envelopes and handwritten letters inside.
'Of course you can. You will, you must.'
Thanks for the vote of confidence, she thought. If that was what it was. Am I about to be pushed into something I cannot control?
Coffin read her expression. 'No, nothing like that. I wouldn't drop you into anything.'
John Coffin and Phoebe Astley had known each other for a long time, way back to the days when Phoebe worked in Birmingham before being recruited to the Second City with advanced promotion. She had come because she wanted the promotion and liked the Chief Commander. Their relationship went back to the time which Phoebe called The Days Before Stella. Not quite true because Stella went back a long way in the Chief Commander's life, even if they had been apart for a considerable time. He loved her, though. No doubt about it. Phoebe, not without her own experiences of the tender passions, did not begrudge the Chief Commander what he had found in Stella.
A few of the team that Coffin had carefully gathered around him in the beginning to police the Second City had won promotion and moved. Archie Young was one, and now commanded his own Police Force. Paul Masters, a much younger man, remained still close to the Chief Commander, and then there was Phoebe herself.
'Those first photographs I showed you were not taken by the police team. Not part of this investigation.'
Phoebe nodded.
'No, they came in the post in a plain envelope to the CID office. You could say they started the inquiry. Others followed.'
'Someone must have wanted you to start looking.'
Coffin was silent.
'The second set of photographs I showed you did not come to CID. They came straight to my home.'
'To you there?' Phoebe was questioning. 'I guess they wanted to be sure you got them.'
'Oh no ... they were addressed to Stella. And before you say that was a compliment, it was not.' He tossed more of the photographs towards Phoebe. 'They were not well meant, Stella was meant to feel pain ...This is a Stalker, with a paedophile slant.'
His voice set the word Stalker in capital letters.
'Do you think that this stalker is the paedophile?' Phoebe pressed.
'There is a difference in style between these letters and the Stalker,' admitted Coffin.'I sense this but I am not sure if Mercy does'. He added gloomily, 'Two criminals then and not just one'
Phoebe Astley took up the photographs. 'But Stella ...' she said incredulously. 'Why Stella, everyone loves Stella?'
Coffin shook his head. 'I'd like to think so but apparently not. May be nothing personal, may be a way of getting at me.'
'Who else is on it besides Joe and Mercy?'
'All there in the file ...Ellen Gower is one. You know her.'
Phoebe nodded. Yes, and she liked Ellen, they had worked together before.
Phoebe had been going to take a few days' leave, get her hair done and visit her mother, but she was not going to refuse to take on the job, you did not say No to the Chief Commander who, for all his politeness and quite genuine kindness of heart, was tough.
Another factor: she had been Chief Inspector for a few years and she was looking for promotion.
Not much time to consider, it had to be Yes or No, and it wasn't going to be No. She was conscious of the inquisitive presence of Paul Masters in the other office. She had sometimes had the wry suspicion that he had some sort of listening device because he always seemed to know everything. But probably it was just that he had the Chief Commander's diary and put two and two together.
'Right,' she said.
'Take a few days off to make yourself familiar with the stuff Joe and Mercy have got.'
So she could get her hair done after all. Perhaps he'd looked at it too and thought it needed help. Having a wife like Stella Pinero would certainly give you skill in assessing a woman's grooming. Without thinking, she ran her hand over her hair.
'I might just have a word with Mercy first.' Tactful thing to do, it was possible that Mercy did not mind Phoebe's entrance into the case, but more than likely she would. 'Ask about Joe.'
'She knows you're coming,' said the Chief Commander.
'Yes, sure.' She knew, and he knew, that there would certainly be bits of information, speculation and informed guesses that had not got through to the written record in the files and that she would have to tease out of Mercy like a knot in the hair (there it was, hair again!) just as Mercy allowed. Some interesting thoughts were now in hospital with Joe. That was the worst of coming into a team late.
'Does Mercy know about these photographs sent to your wife?'
'No,' said Coffin sharply. 'You're the first. Stella doesn't know herself, and I'm trusting that I will not have to tell her. Not until she gets back. She's away for the next week filming a TV play in Scotland.'
He stood up to look out of the window. Distantly, he could see the belt of tall trees which hid the bit of unused land where Stella was about to build a tiny new theatre for students. (She would also rent it out, thus raising money). From his office he could see the roof of the theatre where Stella worked. She had created that theatre in the old church of St Luke's - he thought of it as Stella's theatre. They had made their home in the old tower of the church. An eccentric and expensive home but now very attractive and much loved by both Stella and Coffin. Their own too, not a police house, where they lived with the cat and the dog. The dog was with him now, lying on his feet, while the cat was probably out hunting. There was a tiny, disused old cemetery, long since transformed, across the road from St Luke's Tower where mice, squirrels and other wild animals were the cat's prey. A new building was going up next to the theatre complex, it was going to be rehearsal rooms because Stella was developing activities. So far only the foundations were being opened up, he could see the mud and the stones. He guessed the cat would enjoy excavating down there too.
As he thought about the cat, so mild and gentle at home, hunter and killer outside, he remembered his other worry.
It looked as though they had a serial killer in the Second City. Once again he considered the possibility that there was more than one nasty criminal on his territory.
He turned to Phoebe and said 'She's already miserable about the two dead girls. She knew one of them: Amy Buckly, she was the one found by the canal ...The other girl, Mary Rice was found near the railway station.'
Raped and strangled.
'I've heard that a third girl has been found dead.' Superintendent Miller and Inspector Winnie Ardet were running the case. Winnie was a friend, Jack Miller was not. But that did not matter, it was sometimes better not to be a friend in this job. Coffin was remembering uneasily a promise hehad once made Jack Miller, for reasons he could not now remember, something to the effect that if Jack was ever in any trouble, he could count on Coffin.
Winnie Ardet had been working with a colleague on another nasty crime. Same method and killing, the same sexual assault.
Coffin nodded. 'No doubt about it. We've got a serial killer in the Second City.'
'Not the first.'
'No, there was a local who went berserk and did a run of killings not long after I took over, but I don't think he was a true serial killer, he killed friends and relations. He was soon caught. He'd almost run out of likely victims.'
Phoebe was never quite sure whether to laugh or not at one of Coffin's wry jokes. This time she decided not to.
'Winnie was talking to me about it earlier. She thinks this one is coming on strong.'
'Winnie may be right,' he said dourly.
No jokes today, Phoebe said to herself. The paedophile and the serial killer are really getting to him and who can blame him?
And he is missing Stella. Phoebe had known the Chief Commander long enough to notice undertones in his voice when they were there. He could probably do the same for her. Almost certainly he knew that she didn't fancy the paedophile ring investigation, and he also knew that for this very reason she would put her back into it.
'I'll get along to talk to Mercy and go through the files and whatever she's got on the computer.'
And since the Chief Commander had suggested she take a little time off, she would get her hair cut and washed. However, she knew from experience that his idea of time off was a cup of coffee in the canteen and then back to the job. So she would have to go canny.
The dog, old Gus, shifted position under the Chief Commander's desk, then came out looking sleepy. Gus wasan elderly pekinese, not in very good health (heart pills after a heart transplant, something for his kidneys and the odd painkiller for his rheumatism), but still enjoying life. He had survived the much-loved cat, enjoying a period of autonomy and peace before the arrival of a new cat. Because the new creature had large, appealing eyes, Stella had decided it was a female, to be named something soft and gentle like Angel or Honey. When taken to the vet for her immunisation, worming and anti-flea injections, however, the vet had gently pointed out that Angel was in fact a well-endowed male. An emasculating snip or two had been performed so that Angel had returned home as a tom. He was now a large cat who may have lost some of his sexual drive but none of his aggression or sharpness.
'When's Stella getting back?' Phoebe enquired.
'Another week if I'm lucky, might go on a bit longer.' He smiled. 'I hope sooner rather than later. I'm looking after Gus and the cat: I need help.'
'I'd be glad to do anything I could, sir.'
'I might take you up on that.'
The small clock on his desk chimed. The clock had been Stella's Christmas gift, or one of them as she was prodigal with presents, so that although Coffin hated the idea of a clock with a bell, he went on using it. He was beginning to find it useful to remind him of what he might be tempted to forget or pretend he had forgotten, a device he was not above using. In his office outside he had two secretaries both too tactful to remind him of appointments too obviously. He had them well trained.
Gus, the white peke, stood still as if he knew what the bell meant.
'Go back,' said Coffin. 'Not time for your walk yet.'
'I'll take him, if you like. He knows me.'
Gus gave a small movement of his tail. Yes, it said, he knew her. He stood up hopefully. Phoebe stood up too.
'I'll give you his lead. Don't let him off however much heasks because he runs off. Last time he got in a laundry van and had to be brought back from Greenwich.'
Gus was hooked up and ready to go when the telephone rang. 'Hang on a moment, Phoebe.'
Gus and Phoebe stood by the door, both listening while pretending not to. Not much good being a detective, Phoebe had always thought, if you can't listen to other people's conversations when you want to.
'Yes, Paul. Put him through. Miller? Yes, I did say that I wanted to know at once of any thing vital ...' He listened, his face serious and intent. 'This is the body that just turned up. On Pilling Common?'
Pilling Common sounded romantic and rustic, as it may have been before being swallowed up by factories and docks. Even the docks were disused now and the factories empty. The whole district was being redeveloped into flats and offices, which would all be expensive and smart. A small remnant of what had once been open space deserving of the name of a piece of common ground was still there as a municipal park.
'Right, Miller, thank you for telling me. Keep me in touch.' He looked at Phoebe and Gus, hardly seeing them.
'Something happened?' asked Phoebe.
'I wanted to be kept informed. That was Superintendant Jack Miller doing just that.'
Coffin liked to be involved in the serious cases, more so than perhaps he should have done, but you couldn't kill the detective in him. Most of the CID officers accepted this, gratefully in some cases, less so in other. Jack Miller was one of the less grateful.
'I won't interfere,' said Coffin, thoughtfully and aloud.
Phoebe knew he would, and that they'd be grateful if he did. So, he might miss a committee or two in London that he was meant to be at, but the Second City would be the better for it.
'The new girl,' he said. 'The new victim, she was only a girl,strangled and raped, no semen, must have used a condom, every detail just the same. But a bit extra this time: she was cut open ... '
'Nasty.' Phoebe could feel Gus settle himself across her feet. It was his way of telling her to get a move on.
'The Ripper was like that ... got more and more to enjoy the sensation of cutting into flesh.'
'I suppose it's pleasure,' Phoebe said doubtfully.
'Not what you and I would call pleasure ... but an excitement, a glow ... the knife was sharp enough to cut through the flesh and muscle but blunt enough to drag at it.'
'Is that what Jack Miller said?' Sounded too vivid for him.
Coffin gave her a half smile. 'He just gave me the idea.' He bent down to pat Gus. 'We've got to get him.'
'Before he gets really nasty?'
Another smile. 'Bloody old world, isn't it? All young women ... just out walking. One of them even had her dog with her.'
He looked down at his own small dog, asleep on his feet.
'How's Stella?' asked Phoebe. She knew that Lady Pinero had been very busy with the scholarship auditions she had been holding through which the chosen candidate would get offered training as well as a part.
'One lucky lad is chosen.'
'And her new theatre?'
'Well, the auditioning and so on has brought her the publicity she hoped for, and now she has to face the actual building work.' He smiled affectionately.
'And that's on the way?'
'Starts very soon.'
The phone rang, and this time it was what Phoebe knew to be his private line. 'Stella? Lovely to hear your voice. How are you? Oh good. How is the work going?' He smiled, so work was going well. 'A box ... Do you want me to collect it? ...Yes sure, of course. I'll take the dog and walk round there. What do you want me to do with it ... Right.'
He hung up and turned to Phoebe. 'She's had a message to say that a parcel is waiting for her in St Luke's Tower. She thinks it's some new makeup she ordered ... Doesn't want it sitting in the sun.'
'Might get nicked' Phoebe said. 'Can't I collect it for you and bring it back here with Gus?
Coffin considered.
'I'd like the walk with the dog ... while I think over this paedophile case you want me into.'
'Well in,' said Coffin, making it almost a command. 'That's what it needs, Joe and Mercy have been floating the surface a bit.'
'I suppose Joe wasn't fit. And Mercy had a row with that doctor she's been seeing.'
'Make them more determined to get the perpetrators. Keener.'
'But frightened too.'
Coffin was silent. Then he said: 'No names have been mentioned in the press or on TV. Joe and Mercy have not been mentioned.'
'No,' said Phoebe.
More silence. Coffin took a deep breath. 'I won't pretend I don't know what you are getting at. Or that I have not considered it.'
Phoebe waited.
'The paedophile group may contain one or more people I know.'
'And who work with ... us.'
'Possibly a member or members of the Second City Force.' said Coffin. 'And Joe and Mercy will have sensed this. That's about it, isn't it?'
Phoebe nodded. 'Yes.'
'Well, I agree with you. And it's one of the reasons I have asked you to take charge. How does that make you feel?'
Phoebe took a deep breath. 'That I want to get on with it,sir.' She looked down at the dog, 'Come on, Gus, we'll take that walk.'
On the stairs in the theatre she passed a tall, thin youth who was, although she did not know it, Andrew Eliot, the lad who had won Stella's prize audition and who would be working in Spinnerwick. He bowed and smiled at Phoebe, who smiled back. She liked good looking youths. Andrew was doing secretarial work at the police station to earn money for a nose job, to make him even more good looking for his acting career.
As she set out with Gus, trotting cheerfully in front as if ready to walk miles (although she knew from past experience, he would soon be looking up and saying he couldn't walk another step and now could she carry him), her thoughts were not focused on the dog.
She wondered how Mercy would take her arrival in charge. Mercy, polite and friendly as she was, had the reputation of protecting her own territory.
And then there was the matter of her love affair. Since her divorce Mercy could be tricky. Phoebe had never been quite sure if Mercy was divorced or widowed. Both was her secret opinion: divorced then remarried and widowed. She certainly had a taste for men.
Joe had surely declared his position by falling ill. All right, he didn't invent it, who would, but she knew Joe well enough to guess that in the normal way he would have carried on working if at all possible.
Phoebe went up to her small office on the third floor. Would she still be working from there when she got into the paedophiles? Probably not. A bigger office would be necessary, but she would be back here, it was the nearest place to her working home since she had left Birmingham.
She rang Mercy, with Gus sitting on her feet, looking hurt. Where was that walk? 'Mercy?'
'Oh hello. So you're taking over?' Her voice was brisk and Phoebe had known it friendlier.
'Working with you,' said Phoebe, 'that's more the way of it. I didn't get a lot of choice, you don't with the Chief Commander when he's made a decision.'
Mercy knew it. 'It's not a nice piece of cake, you know.'
'Then we needn't eat it like that, need we?'
Mercy laughed and relaxed. 'No, sure. Well, there you are, we do it together.'
'How's Joe?' Phoebe asked.
'Not too bad. Turns out he hasn't got leukaemia, the symptoms looked right but when they did some tests, it wasn't. But he's got to rest.' She added, a shade wistfully: 'He's out of hospital. Home, being cherished.' At least, she thought that was what it was.
Taking a month or so off, thought Phoebe, she couldn't blame him. 'How are you feeling?'
Mercy did not pretend not to understand. 'I expect to keep well. I've sent my son to Fife to stay with family. I think with two brothers who are into judo, not to mention two guard dogs, he will be safe enough.'
'Right.' Phoebe looked down at Gus. And I haven't even got a cat or dog to worry about. Another reason why I got chosen. Perhaps she could get a cat. Or later on, even have a baby. People did, you weren't obliged to have a father, although it was probably nicer, just a little bit of semen. But she could no doubt manage the father if she gave her mind to it. Jokey speculation like that always cheered her up.
'What sort of mood is the Lord High Executioner in? Approachable?' Mercy wanted to know.
'He's always approachable, isn't he?'
'Well, yes,' said Mercy'
'Sometimes more so. Stella's away, he can be edgy. He's jealous, you see.'
'Of course, she's an attractive woman, and it's her job to let people see it. I'm jealous myself sometimes.'
'I never know whether to believe you or not.'
Phoebe laughed.
'Anyway, I want to see him, need to see him, and I hope he will listen to me.'
'Try him and see, 'Phoebe advised.
'Yeah, might do that.'
'I'll be back.' said Phoebe. 'And we'll mop up this paedophile outfit, I'm determined. May be only a small group. Even a one man band, feels to me like that.' And then she was determined she would be transferred to the Stalker investigation.
Phoebe said goodbye to Mercy and then she and Gus trotted off together; Phoebe feeling more cheerful and Gus more determined to get his walk.
On the way, she saw Mercy, also on her way somewhere ... 'Hi.'
'As we're soon going to be working together,' Mercy said, 'we'll have to get used to meeting.' She sounded only half pleased at the prospect. 'There's a room for you to work in been found.'
'What's in it?'
'It hasn't been opened yet. Waiting for you, I think ...Joke. This is a bloody difficult case.'
Mercy did not know for sure as yet who was going to be in charge now Joe was off. She wanted the job, but Phoebe outranked her. And in fact she had a strong feeling that she was going to be on the outskirts of this case. One of those CID officers who is occasionally seen but seldom heard. A disappearing act which somehow wins promotion. If Phoebe sought to be transferred to the Stalker outfit, then no doubt she would be, Mercy thought.
Anyway, a call on the Chief Commander might settle her mind.

Even as tolerant and polite a Chief Commander as John Coffin (who well remembered his own humbler days) couldnot be seen without a preliminary talk with Paul Masters who 'kept the book' as he liked to describe it.
He had a desk in one corner of the big room with two acolytes of either sex (one no longer called them secretaries) at their computers and various other electronic aids on longish tables.
Paul had run in the London Marathon once, he and Mercy had trained together and Mercy had got through while he had had to drop out. An experience like that gives you respect for the other person. Liking too in this case, because Mercy had never once made a joke of him. Never even mentioned it, so most of his colleagues, who would certainly have referred more than once to Drop Out Paul, never knew of it.
Paul showed Mercy in, asked Coffin if they would like coffee, and then brought it in. He then tactfully retired. It was up to Mercy now.
Coffin, who knew the value of silence, waited for her to speak.
The word shattered the silence.
'It smells, you must think so yourself, sir.'
'Certainly it presents some unusual features,' Coffin said cautiously, waiting to hear what she had to say. Did she know about the photographs sent to Stella?
'It seems aimed at us, not personally, but sent on purpose.' So she didn't know about what had come to Stella.
For that matter, Stella herself did not know. Not yet. May be she would never have to.
'That's what had Joe puzzled. I don't say it made him ill, of course it didn't, but by God, it helped. ' And maybe he wasn't as ill as he acted; he just wanted out.
'In these cases we have to seek out evidence of paedophilia. You know we do: it's a secret activity and they want it kept secret.' Mercy continued.
'Except among themselves,' said Coffin
'It's almost a proxy activity, the passing round of the photographs is as important as the activity itself.'
'Pleasure enjoyed in remembrance,' said Coffin.
'And we're part of the pleasure: the police team, you even, sir.' she did not see Coffin give an imperceptible flinch, 'and we don't like it. I don't like it, Joe didn't like it. Phoebe won't like it when she gets a whiff of it.'
'Yes,' agreed Coffin.
'As a rule we have to go searching, but now it is coming at us and we don't have to look, it is supplied. By the perpetrators? Not something they usually do. This case is not typical, I can feel it.'
Coffin nodded.
Mercy stood up. 'Thank you for seeing me and letting me talk ... I just wanted to let you know how uneasy Joe and I have been. In case anything goes wrong.'
'Do you think it will?'
Mercy nodded. 'Could do. But how and what I can't tell ... just a feeling.'
'Feelings count,' said Coffin, speaking from memories of his past.
'I hear that another body has arrived in our area, courtesy of the killer of the other girls?'
Coffin nodded.
'No connection with the paedophiles?'
'Not as far as I know. If you find one, let me know.' He was holding the door for her.
Never forgets he's a gentleman as well as the Boss, thought Mercy. 'At once, sir.'
She deserved a smile from him and got it.

Phoebe and Gus took a leisurely walk through the little old churchyard, now a small park and then turned back to the tower where Coffin and Stella had made their home. Three stone steps led up to the front door. Phoebe had half convinced herself that she would find nothing, but there was a small parcel lying on the grey stone.
It was addressed to Stella.
'Right, Gus, we'll take it to your master.'
The parcel, in thick brown paper, typed address, was square and while not heavy just a trifle more solid than she had expected.
Managing Gus who was keen to get back to Coffin, she dropped the parcel. 'Shook that up a bit,' she said as she picked it up. 'Don't suppose it matters.'
They walked up the stairs to Coffin's office since Gus did not like either the lift or the escalator and passed Paul Masters with a wave.
'What's that you've got there?' Masters asked.
Phoebe shook her head and marched in to the Chief Commander's office.
She handed the parcel over to Coffin who was seated at his desk, then looked at it. 'Something's leaked,' she said. 'I dropped it, what did I do when I dropped it?'
She stared at her hand. 'It's blood.'

Coffin took the packet from her, ripped off the paper, increasingly wet with blood. Inside was a tin that had once held biscuits, the lid had been dislodged when it fell. Perhaps it had never fitted very well, nor the packer cared.
In the box, swimming in its own blood, was a body organ.
'Human,' said Coffin bluntly. Not dog, cat or horse but human, he was sure.
'A ute,' whispered Phoebe, she had done some premed stuff at university which had included anatomy. 'I don't think it's human, though. Wrong size.'
'I know it is a uterus,' said Coffin, half to himself. 'And there is a certain opacity which suggests there is an embryo inside.'
'It's part of the paedophile crimes, I'm sure, damn it. I knew they were building up to even more nastiness.'
Through the blood he could see that the address bore Stella's name.
'Why Stella?'
'I wondered that myself,' said Phoebe.
Stella Pinero, Lady Coffin but she preferred her professional name, was at that moment filming a comedy in Scotland. It was a good part, the best, and the film looked like being a big success. Coffin did not want anything to touch her happiness.
'I've never known Stella more bouyant, or sure that she was doing good work. And she is. I've seen some of the rushes ... she could get an award. It matters to her, I couldn't bear to take the shine off that. No, we must just catch the lunatic who's sending these messages. Shouldn't be difficult.'
'You think whoever sent this to Stella knew about her success?'
Coffin shrugged. 'She's had some publicity in the national press recently' He added: 'I shan't tell Stella.'
'Won't she find out?'
'I won't tell her, and you won't.'
Phoebe knew she would not say anything, but she had a well-founded respect for Stella's ability to winkle things out.
'Perhaps it's aimed more at you than Stella.' She added quietly : 'I expect Mercy will have something cogent to say. I'll get this mess to her, shall I?'
'You're in charge now.'
'Mercy won't like that much.'
'She's out of her depth, and knows it.'
Phoebe was not so sure: Mercy was a clever, hardworking officer. She was also ambitious. 'We've had a talk. And I met her by chance earlier today.'
'Good. Did she say anything?'
'Not much. We'll work together well enough,' Phoebe said.
'I hate the human race sometimes, don't you,' Coffin said aloud. It wasn't truly a question, but a statement, and a sad one.
COFFIN KNOWS THE ANSWER. Copyright © 2002 by Gwendoline Butler. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.