“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Palais Theatre, Hawksgrove!” This announcement never failed to send a ripple through the audience. In part, it was people settling down as the house lights dimmed, but there was also an undeniable thrill of anticipation.
The gold paint had been darkened by years of cigarette smoke and the red velvet seats were worn smooth and faded, but none of this mattered. A person could stay at home and listen to comedy and music and song on the wireless, but they couldn’t feel it the same way you did in a theatre. Even in a little place like the Palais, the sounds were richer and the lights and colours were brighter than anything you would imagine. And then there was the crowd around you, sharing the experience so that you were all somehow connected and responding as one. All of this for less than a shilling – sixpence in the pit – and you could park your bicycle under cover for free.
The programme for a Saturday evening rarely varied: a comedian from Yorkshire or Manchester, a selection of bawdy songs from resident chanteuse Dora Diamanté, and then the main act. Magic acts were popular at the moment, and tonight the audience enthusiastically welcomed The Marvelous Mandarin to the stage. He wore a long, ornately embroidered red robe and shoes with pointed and turned up toes. His hat had a button-topped red skullcap and a black upturned brim. Dark hair in a long plait hung down his back. The magician affected the movements and accent of a traditional theatre Chinaman, but it was obvious that there was an Englishman under the yellowish make-up and drooping black tendrils of the fake moustache. Black lines around his eyes were supposed to make them look almond-shaped.
The costume, the cheerful bamboo flute music, and the designs painted on the magician’s props gave his act an appropriately oriental flavour. The bright colours and impossible illusions carried the audience away from the dull grey of an English city. He had begun simply with the juggling of red and yellow sponge balls, making them appear and disappear, and at one point pulling five of them out of his mouth in rapid succession. Then he used a fire-pan and turned dancing yellow flames into a display of purple and orange flowers.
Each illusion he performed was more impressive than the last – a rapid flow from one to the other, with almost no words between them. As the act progressed, the audience became quieter, more focused, and even the most talkative ceased trying to explain to their neighbours how the ‘trick’ was achieved.
The climax was an illusion that the poster outside billed as ‘The Incredible Chinese Box.’ It was slid out onto the stage by a pair of black-clad men in ‘coolie’ hats, who bowed to the magician and then exited. The box was a cube with sides almost a yard and a half square, with red oriental dragons painted on a yellow-gold background. Stout iron rings were bolted in the centre of each of the four sides and the top.
“Please to step forward the volunteers,” the magician said.
A large man with a handsome blond beard and a smaller man in a rumpled suit walked up the steps onto the stage to a smattering of applause. The magician lifted the lid of the box and drew out a length of heavy steel chain. He passed it to the two men and asked them to examine it. The blond man tugged on it at several points along its length and confirmed it was sound. The other man seemed intent on examining every link along its length, so the magician gave the large padlock to the bearded man.
“Self will climb into box,” the Marvelous Mandarin said. “Gentlemen will wrap chain around box and secure with padlock. Box then rise into air and self will escape – though on bad day, sometimes not.” He waited for the polite laughter the fade. “Ready gentlemen?”
The two men nodded. The magician threw open the lid of the Chinese Box.
“Please to examine.”
The smaller man peered inside and seemed in danger of tumbling in. The blond man circled the box and banged at the sides with the palm of his hand. Satisfied, the two men stepped back. The magician then hoisted up the thick red fabric of his robe, ready to step into the box.
“Please not to close lid until self inside – no bump noggin.” He climbed over the edge of the box and then stood in it and addressed the audience. “If self fail to escape – please clap anyway.” He gave a little bow and ducked down out of sight.
The big man closed the lid, then he and his fellow volunteer threaded the heavy chain through each of the iron rings, and finally secured the two ends of the chain with the padlock. Without drawing attention to the fact, the big man then attached a wire to the ring on the lid of the box.
As the two helpers left the stage, the lights dimmed and a spotlight focused on the locked box. Flute music started up again, but now it was slower and had a rhythm like a ticking clock. The box left the stage and rose until it seemed to be floating midway between the stage and the top of the proscenium arch. It spun gently the wire supporting it.
The tempo of the music increased slightly, and the audience leaned forward in expectation. There were some among them who had seen the show before – but while they knew what was to come, there was still anticipation. There would be a bright green flash, some white smoke, and all four sides of the box would drop down on hinges. Inside would be revealed not the Marvelous Mandarin, but a huge bronze and green rooster that looked too big to be real. On a good night, the bird would stretch its wings and crow, and very occasionally it would flap its wings and fly down onto the stage.
The music became quieter, and a long drum-roll on a snare rose to a crescendo and was topped by the striking of a large gong.
The echoes of the gong faded and there was silence. The Chinese Box continued to spin slowly.
“Should we clap?” someone whispered loudly. The rest of the audience grew restless and began to chatter.
The explosion startled them all. Some people gasped and several cried out. The sound had come from inside the box and had sounded more like a gunshot than the pop of stage fireworks. The Chinese Box had seemed to jerk in mid-air, but still it remained closed.
“Is that blood?” a woman’s voice cried. And then there was a scream.
The curtain dropped suddenly, hitting the stage and seeming to bounce.
“Get out there and sing something vulgar,” a voice rasped from offstage.
Looking slightly unprepared, Dora Diamanté staggered out in front of the curtains and gave a mumbled apology about problems backstage, then started to sing about a lonely shepherd and a beautiful ewe.
“That Malloy is here again,” the housekeeper said, making no attempt to hide her disdain.
“Thank you, Betty, please show him up,” Vickery said brightly. He folded his newspaper and looked up at the young woman, who was still standing in the doorway.
“Are you sure you want him up here?” she asked.
“I wish to speak with him. You’re not expecting me to shout down the stairs, are you?”
Betty gave this possibility serious consideration before answering. “No, sir, of course not. Will you be wanting elevenses?”
“A pot of tea would be lovely.”
“Very good, sir.” Betty turned to go.
“And Betty, please don’t bring that chipped cup up again: I didn’t enjoy drinking from it last time.”
“That wasn’t meant for you,” Betty said before she could stop herself. She turned back, biting her lip.
“Perhaps not. But I couldn’t serve tea to my guest in damaged crockery, could I?”
“But he’s not a guest,” Betty said, “he’s… well, he’s…”
“He’s what, Betty?”
“Well, he’s not a gentleman, sir. Not like you. He’s common.”
Vickery sighed. “Mr. Malloy and I will be working together for the foreseeable future – I’m afraid you’ll have to get used to the idea.”
“Very good, sir,” Betty said. “Never let it be said that I don’t do as I’m asked. I’ll fetch him up right away. I don’t like leaving him down there unsupervised.” She turned again and reached for the doorknob.
“I shall expect you to treat Mr. Malloy with the same respect that you treat my other guests,” Vickery said. He saw Betty’s shoulders stiffen, but she didn’t look back.
“If you insist, sir.” She wrenched open the door, ready to match out, and found Malloy filling the doorway. Betty’s face turned scarlet.
“I thought you might have got lost,” Malloy said, smiling down at her.
Her shoulders quaking, Betty stepped back. “Won’t you please come in,” she said, teeth gritted.
Malloy entered and stood beside the chair opposite Vickery. Betty banged the door shut, and outside they both heard her say “Common!” before stomping off downstairs.
This was Malloy’s second visit to number four Mallowan Crescent. It was a red-brick town house on three floors in one of the wealthier parts of town. It had belonged to a Russian Count before the Revolution, or so Vickery had told him. The ground floor – the entrance hall and kitchen – were the housekeeper’s domain, and Betty’s own quarters were down there at the back. The top floor held bedrooms. In between was this floor, with the sitting room at the front and Vickery’s study at the back.
On one side of the sitting room was a fireplace. A faded Indian rug lay before it, with comfortable armchairs at either end and a dark wood coffee table between them. A Chesterfield sofa completed the sitting area, facing the fireplace. The alcoves on either side of the chimney breast were filled with bookshelves, and these held neat rows of leather-bound volumes. Their orderliness contrasted starkly with the cluttered chaos of the shelves in the study, which Malloy had seen briefly on his earlier visit.
The other side of the sitting room was laid out as a dining area. The table top was polished to a high gloss and had five high-backed dining chairs and a carver around it. The walls were papered with a pale sage watered silk and the woodwork was the crisp white of fresh snow. In the bright sunlight of a late summer’s day, the room was fresh and clean, but somewhat cool and impersonal. Malloy thought it must be cosier when the curtains were drawn across both windows and the fire was lit.
“I don’t think she likes me,” he said, sitting down.
“Betty doesn’t trust you – it’s not the same thing.”
“At least she won’t be rude to me anymore,” Malloy said.
“Why ever would you think that?”
“You told her to treat me with respect – like a proper visitor.”
“You haven’t seen how she treats other visitors,” Vickery said, a smile tugging his lips.
“And we’re working together now, are we, Mr. Vickery?” There was a hint of a smile on Malloy’s face too.
“I thought we ought to formalise the arrangement, yes,” Vickery said, not looking at him. “Unless you have made other arrangements?”
“I’ve nothing in the pipeline at present,” Malloy said. “What work was it you had in mind for us to be doing?”
“I think we shall be investigating a death,” Vickery said.
“I have been contacted by an old friend from the local constabulary. He’ll be along shortly. If you don’t mind, I’d like you to be present during the meeting.”
“I didn’t think you had any friends at the police station,” Malloy said.
“I don’t. That’s why I’d like you to be here.”
“Bit ironic, isn’t it, the bold gendarmes asking you to help them investigate a murder?”
“That’s not the most ironic part,” Vickery said. He paused as the doorbell sounded downstairs. “The detective inspector who is calling on us, is the one who arrested me.”
There was a light tap on the door, and Betty entered without waiting to be called.
“There’s a detective downstairs, says he’s expected.” She glanced meaningfully at Malloy as if to say: He’s here for you.
“Thank you, Betty, show him up. We’ll have some biscuits with the tea, I think.”
“Yessir.” Betty disappeared downstairs, leaving the sitting room door open.
A gruff voice came from below. “Thank you, I’ll see myself up. I’ve been here before.”
There was a creaking of stairs as the visitor made his way up. As the man reached the doorway, Vickery and Malloy both stood. The detective was a big man, as tall as Malloy and wider across the shoulders. He wore a brownish wool jacket and trousers that looked like he’d put the flat-iron on them himself. He had a broad face, like a bust of a Roman emperor, only more florid. His brown hair was thinning, but he seemed to have compensated for this by growing bushy reddish sideburns and an impressive moustache. He stood awkwardly on the threshold, and Vickery made no attempt to welcome him.
“Hello, Vickery,” the detective said.
Perhaps he had passed some sort of test: Vickery stepped forward, offering his hand.
“Inspector, how lovely to see you again. Do come in. May I introduce my associate, Jamie Malloy. Jamie, Detective Inspector Grives.”
As Malloy shook the detective’s hand, he watched the man’s expression darken from suspicion through to hostility.
“No need to stand on ceremony,” Vickery said. “Let’s sit down. Betty will bring up some tea – if we’re lucky.”
With Vickery and Malloy taking the two armchairs, Grives had to take a seat on the Chesterfield facing them. His eyes were cold under knitted brows and his neck burned an angry red. In the awkward silence, they could hear the rattling of teacups as Betty made her way up with the tray.
“Thank you, Betty, we’ll serve ourselves,” Vickery said as she set the tray down on the wide coffee table that separated him from the detective. Betty made her exit, closing the door, and Vickery picked up the silver teapot to pour tea into glossy china cups.
“Do you still take milk, Inspector?” Vickery asked. “And two lumps of sugar?”
Grives nodded sharply. He took the cup and saucer when his host offered it, and then stirred his tea loudly and for far longer than was necessary. Malloy received his tea with a nod of thanks, and still the detective seemed to be trying to suppress an internal explosion.
“Help yourself to shortbread,” Vickery said.
Grives’ eye twitched, and he slammed his cup down on the table, spilling tea into the saucer. “Dammit to hell, Vickery!” He said. He got to his feet and paced over to the window, looking down into the street. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” He didn’t look around.
“Seeing you again does not fill me with joy, inspector, I assure you,” Vickery said.
Malloy reached forward and helped himself to a piece of shortbread, his eyes flicking from Vickery to Grives and back again.
“I am not here to apologise,” Grives said.
“Why are you here?” Vickery asked.
Grives stood at the window, breathing loudly, saying nothing.
“If you want my help, you have only to ask for it,” Vickery said.
“You already told the Commissioner you’d help,” Grives said.
“I told him that I would meet with you, but that I would not be involved unless the detective leading the investigation wanted me to.”
“I don’t want your bloody help!” Grives whirled around, his face now as red as the back of his neck.
“But you do need it,” Vickery said, his voice calm.
“You think so, do you?” Grives asked.
“The circumstances of the death at the theatre have raised a number of questions, and you have not yet made any significant progress towards answering them.”
“That’s what he said, is it?”
“More or less. He spent a lot more words saying it, but that was the gist,” Vickery said.
“Sounds about right,” Grives admitted. “Never met a man who liked to talk as much as he does.” The detective made his way back to the sofa and sat down. He clasped his big hands together in his lap and stared down at them. “A man was shot dead in a locked box – how is that possible, Vickery?”
“The newspaper said that the crowd all heard a shot, but that no gun was found in the box,” Vickery said.
“Some kind of trickery was involved,” Grives said.
“And you want Mr. Vickery to figure out how the trick was done?” Malloy asked.
Grives didn’t answer him directly. He continued to stare down at his thick fingers. “They’re all very polite and answer my questions…”
“But nobody tells you anything,” Vickery said.
“Theatre people,” Grives said, “you know what they’re like.”
“Yes, I do.” Vickery smiled briefly. “Or I did. It has been a while since I set foot…”
“They don’t trust the police. Why is that, Vickery?” Grives asked.
“I think you’re asking the wrong person,” Vickery said.
Grives looked up at him, and could only nod slowly.
“In the theatre, no one is who they seem,” Vickery said. “We’re all pretending to be someone else or something else. Not everyone has guilty secrets – but some do. The last thing they want is some outsider coming along demanding to know the truth.”
Grives hadn’t taken his eyes off Vickery – and from his frown it could be assumed he had things to say about people with guilty secrets. But in the end, his face relaxed and he sighed.
“Will they talk to you, do you think?” Malloy asked.
“Possibly,” Vickery said. He and the detective were staring at each other, like opponents over a chess board, each waiting for the other to blink.
“Will you do it?” Malloy asked.
“If I’m asked,” Vickery said, not taking his eyes off Grives.
“Will you ask him, for heaven’s sake?” Malloy said to the detective.
Grives’ eyes turned to Malloy, and the contest was over. “The Commissioner is breathing down my neck,” he said, “and I’ve got nothing. I don’t even know how the man was killed…” There was a pause, and finally Grives admitted defeat. “Will you help me?”
Vickery leaned back in his chair and pressed the fingers of both hands together in front of him. “I shall want to examine the box that was used on stage that night. I will need a free hand to search the theatre, and to question the people there in my own way. There will be no police chaperone.”
“I can’t allow…”
“Inspector, if anyone even suspects I am in your employ, they will tell me nothing.”
“All right, all right, but…”
Vickery held up a hand to silence him. “Furthermore, you must agree to take no action until I am sure we have a solution to the mystery. If you act too soon, all could be lost, and we may never know what happened.”
“I knew it would be like this,” Grives muttered, “pushed out of my own investigation. If you think I’m…”
“If you want my assistance, then you must allow me to assist.”
“I am not prepared to have terms dictated to me by a…”
“Inspector, at this point in your career, I would think the last thing you need is another unsolved case of death under suspicious circumstances,” Vickery said pointedly.
Grives glared at him, nostrils flared, breathing heavily.
Vickery’s stare was cold and unflinching, daring the detective to say something more. Malloy realised he hadn’t been asked here to protect Vickery, he didn’t need that: he was there to witness what was said. If Inspector Grives said the wrong thing at this point, Vickery would ensure his career in the police force came to an ignoble end. Perhaps the whole purpose of this meeting had been to bait the detective and cause him to condemn himself. And perhaps Grives was having these same thoughts because he relaxed suddenly and leaned back.
“I will not be squeezed out of my own investigation,” he said. “You will conduct whatever examinations you see fit, Vickery, with no interference from me. Your associate,” he glanced toward Malloy, “will report to me everything you learn as you learn it. Those are my terms.”
Vickery looked at Malloy, who shrugged and then nodded: the arrangement was acceptable to him.
“Very well,” Vickery said. “The newspaper account said that events on stage were witnessed by one of your own constables.”
“Colman.” Grives nodded. “He’s a good man. Gave a very thorough report. I’ll send over a copy.”
“I shall need to speak to him myself,” Vickery said.
Grives looked as though he was about to challenge this.
“In for a penny…” Malloy said and winked at the detective.
Grives got to his feet. “All right,” he said.
“Thank you, inspector. Mr. Malloy will see you out.”
“That went as well as expected,” Vickery said when Malloy came back upstairs.
“It did?” Malloy said.
“Dreadful man. I really did want to give him a hard time.”
“It’s a good thing you didn’t,” Malloy said, smiling. “Remind me never to get on the wrong side of you.”
“You don’t mind getting involved in this?” Vickery asked. “I’d do it on my own, but…”
“I’m quite looking forward to it, to tell you the truth,” Malloy said. “You and me made quite the team at old Fulbright’s party, didn’t we?”
“Indeed, we did. But this time things may prove a little more challenging. For me at least. I haven’t set foot in a theatre since Terry was killed.”