Chapters One and Two of Shamus Dust
Narrated by John Reilly | The voice of TV and Radio Stations in the US, Canada and beyond… one of the top 50 radio imaging voices in the country.
For as long as I remembered, I’d been sleeping like the dead. Could slip at any hour, in any place, deep into that cool night where the heartbeat crawls and dreams are stilled like small animals in winter. Not on account of some inner serenity or the easy conscience of an unspotted soul. It was a leftover, a habit arrived in a war, when all that counts is to grab at sleep and hold onto it whenever and wherever it offers. It becomes a thing accustomed. So routine you take it as given, right up until the hour it goes missing. Lately, I’d lost the gift. As simple as that. Had reacquainted with nights when sleep stands in shrouds and shifts its weight in corner shadows, unreachable. You hear the rustle of its skirts, wait long hours on the small, brittle rumors of first light, and know that when finally they arrive they will be the sounds that fluting angels make. It was five-thirty, the ragged end of a white night, desolate as a platform before dawn when the milk train clatters through and a guard tolls the names of places you never were or ever hope to be. I was waiting on the fluting angels when the telephone rang.
First light was hours away. It had been snowing for twenty. The telephone sat on a bureau between two sash windows looking down on the street. I slacked my shirt collar and shoelaces, let the ringing clear my head, rolled off the sofa and picked up on a cool, well-fed, commercial voice I didn’t recognize. “We have not met, Mr. Newman. I am Councilor Drake.” The delivery out of the box where they keep the City’s anointed, but the name meant nothing to me. The commercial tone went on.
“There has been an incident. A short while ago I received a telephone call from City Police requiring access to a property that belongs to me. My driver has the keys. You will convey them to the detective inspector who telephoned and determine what this incident amounts to. Whereafter you will report your findings to me. You are acquainted, I believe, with City Police.”
The councilor believed right. We were acquainted. I waited for whatever else he wanted to tell me about my immediate future, and when he didn’t, said, “You’re mistaken about what I do, Mr. Drake. And you didn’t mention where you got my name.” Vehicle lights lit stripes along the wall and moved them clockwise round the room.
The councilor didn’t miss a beat. “From your former employer, Mr. Lynagh. Why should I be mistaken?” Cold distilled off the window in waves. I watched a snow flurry beat against the glass. My last employer had been head of the City’s insurance investigations; a shrewd, straight-talking Australian who moved in circles where you can say whereafter even in front of the servants. Also given to homilies. Look, Newman, as far as the locals are concerned, we’re both colonials. The difference is my lot play cricket with them and all is forgiven. Your lot are the tired and huddled masses that rhyme tomato with Plato, and every living Limey thinks baseball is a game for girls. Can’t argue about the baseball, though. The councilor filled the silence on the line, waiting his answer. “Mr. Lynagh commends your resourcefulness and discretion. Therefore, whatever prior engagements you may have, be good enough to do as I ask.”
But it was early Christmas morning. I had no engagements. No argument with discreet and resourceful either, and still it didn’t make sense. This was London. There were major league inquiry agencies on call around the clock, ready to jump. Instead, the councilor had taken a recommendation, called a number in the book, and was making it clear he was not somebody to disappoint. I put the mouthpiece under my chin and a double-hitch knot in my necktie. “Councilor, I’m one man. What I do mostly concerns people who go missing with other people’s money. Hard to believe, I know, but in this mile-wide hub of empire and enterprise there are operators who rub up against other operators with fewer scruples than they own themselves. When that happens and they get taken to the cleaners, it’s not a thing they advertise or mention to police. Not even to a high-class agency, on account of the embarrassment. So far, I don’t see what your embarrassment is. Without it the job wouldn’t be in my line.”
Drake breathed a sigh in my ear. “You can have no idea yet, Mr. Newman, in what line this employment belongs. If, on the other hand, you are intending merely to bargain, there is not time. I propose that you double your customary fee and do not keep the detective inspector waiting. My driver should already be at your door.”
The line sputtered and died. I put the telephone back in its cradle and cleared my breath off the window glass. Twenty feet below, Fleet Street was quiet as a prayer, newsrooms dark and presses shut down for the holiday. Parked as close to the curb as the snowfall allowed, a Daimler limousine waited with its sidelights burning, fanning exhaust across the sidewalk. I was curious. Curious that a City councilor with a problem would send his car to collect me first, and then telephone me second. Curious that he would double my rate and not ask what my rate was, or even how I voted. If all you want is a delivery made and some questions asked, it’s a lot of trouble to go to. I got my jacket and coat off the floor and went down to the waiting car. Not out of curiosity. Not even for the siren call of an open checkbook. In the end, just to get some air on a night turned airless. That and because I thought I could be back before daylight, weary enough for sleep.
Ten minutes later the councilor’s driver eased under a streetlight on West Smithfield on the hospital side of the square, climbed out and had the rear door open while the car still settled at the curb. He pushed an envelope at me, bleak-eyed in the falling snow, then got back in behind the wheel without a word and glided east along the deserted meat market.
The streetlamp hung off a half-timber gatehouse in the middle of a row of storefronts with offices over, there to light the gatehouse arch and a path running through it to a churchyard beyond. I ripped open the envelope while my fingers still worked, put two keys on a tag in my pocket and walked under the arch. The freeze was squeezing the ground so hard, the gravestones were starting to levitate.
The church had a square tower over a doorway framed in checkerboard stonework. An iron-studded door stood half open on a porch, a police officer hunched in its shadow. The pallid giant beat one glove against another in a slow handclap, then raised a salute as I walked up the churchyard path. I said I had a delivery to make to his detective inspector and asked was he around. The officer looked out at the night over the top of my head. “Detective Inspector McAlester, sir. He left. A motor vehicle connected with the incident is reported nearby.”
It was the third time I’d heard the word inside half an hour. “Incident?”
The officer backed up inside the darkened porch, snapped on a flashlight that sent wild shadows shuttering across his shoes, then settled it on a bench that ran around the wall. The beam moved over a torso lying twisted under the bench, played along the lower body, and then moved up again to an arm outspread across the floor. It held there on a face in profile cradled on the arm. I squatted down. The incident was a white male in his early thirties, lean built, smooth shaved, hair thinning; good-looking once. A dotted rhythm of blood made an arc across the plaster wall. A flying jacket was zipped tight under his chin, sticky where his cheek nuzzled the sheepskin lining. He lay as if listening to the muffle of snowflakes falling, wrapped in a long-drawn night of his own. A faint, sweet violet hung on the air. “You found him?”
“No, sir. A nurse from Bart’s stepped into the church before she went on duty this morning, it being Christmas Day. The deceased was a neighbor.” He moved the beam along the sleeve of the flying jacket, fixed long enough on curled fingers to show their manicure, then snapped it off and went back to filling the doorway.
I got on my feet and looked him in the chin. “It being Christmas Day, officer, I’m thinking I ought to step inside myself.” I took off my hat and held it over my heart, to let him weigh if he wanted a refusal on his conscience.
He nodded me at the door that led into the church. “Shouldn’t see why not, sir. Compliments of the season.”
St. Bartholomew the Great was so cavernous inside it was shrugging off ten degrees of frost. At right a halo of candlelight flickered, impossible to tell how far off. Up ahead, a blood-red sanctuary lamp burned and might have been a distant planet. The rest of the interior took its time to collect. A half circle of arches floated on squat, massive columns. Moonlight pale as butter slanted from high in the walls. I moved right, followed along a line of fat pillars, kept going and came level with the halo of light and stopped when it divided in two.
Inside the rail of a side chapel, on a wrought iron stand thick with wax, two tapers were burned almost through. At the foot of the stand, catching their glimmer, a nativity was bedded in a scatter of straw on the stone-flagged floor. It had a crib in a stable, an ox and an ass in a stall, shepherds on their knees beside the crib, and a pageboy a little way off, beckoning wide-eyed to three kings that they’d better come see. On a rise behind the stable, a somber angel who knew how it all would end was at the edge of tears. A warden with a salesman’s eye had left an open packet of tapers next to a coin slot in the wall, where you could drop in a coin and hear the sound that pirate treasure makes. In the City it counts as therapy. I checked my wristwatch, emptied my pocket change in the slot and bought up the warden’s inventory. The rest was two minutes’ industry.
Cloth Fair was a narrow street running along the north side of the church, strung with vacant lots burned out on a blitz night six years before. Cloth Court was hardly more than a dogleg passage leading off the street, built around with black-brick row houses four stories high. At that hour only one house in the court was showing a light. I stood in a wind from Siberia watching snowfall cover my trail, reflecting on what I had.
It wasn’t complicated. Not more than an early morning call from a City grandee, a nurse who came across her neighbor dead or dying before dawn on Christmas Day, and the dead neighbor’s latchkeys in my hand. That and the voice that always whispers in my ear, soft as telling a rosary, that for every reason I might think I have for mixing in a murder, there are ten better reasons to walk away. I crossed the angle of the court, fitted one of the keys in its lock and gave it a quarter turn. As for the voice that whispers, I hear it every time I step uninvited into an unlit room. The trick is not to let it start a conversation.
A board floor cracked under my shoes. Somewhere a breeze snapped at a curtain. The hallway was thick with haze off an oil heater, and when you got underneath that, the hard, acrid smell of a bear cave. I walked my hand along a wall, scraped my knuckle on a line of coat hooks, struck cold tin and dipped a switch. A bare bulb hanging from a wire at the head of a stair, flared and rocked in a draft. I leaned back on the street door and let it latch, waited while my breathing steadied then grabbed the stair rail and climbed toward the light.
The second floor had a corridor with peeling yellow walls of geishas swaying under parasols and a small, rank kitchen at the far end where a curtain flapped at a wide-open sash. Beyond the open window, a fire escape dropped to the alley below and somebody who lately decided to use it had left a trail on the iron treads, hollows filling already with snow like footprints on the edge of a tide. I pulled my head back inside the window and let my eyelids unfreeze. It was cold enough for Lapland.
At the other end of the corridor there was a bedroom looking out over the court, and the only house in it that had been showing a light. The bedroom had a line of empty liquor bottles on a dresser that had likely come with the rental, and in front of the bottles, a portable gramophone in a chromium case that hadn’t. At one side of the gramophone there were import-label records: McGhee, Hawkins, Hodges, Lester Young. On the other side there was a folded card frame with two photographs in ovals, one facing the other. The photographs were paired: one younger man and one older, both of them taken on the same lawn under the same trees on the same afternoon in high summer. The younger one was a college boy with a cool, even smile who wore a sports jacket and slacks, a shirt open at the neck and wrote Henry and added Christmas Kisses across the corner of his picture. The older man was in his middle thirties. He stood behind a garden chair wearing a brush moustache and a slim bow-tie, had a jacket hooked over his shoulder and soft, tawny hair that lifted in the breeze. The camera had caught him off guard, arching back from the knees, his head tossed in a broad, handsome laugh. I switched on a bedside lamp and took in the rest.
The Councilor’s tenant was a collector of photographs. He had them pinned across the window drapes, slotted in the frame of his vanity mirror, taped to his bedroom walls and closet door. Not the kind of photographs that get taken at garden parties on summer lawns, and it was hard to tell if the boys in his collection were college types. But always they were boys. Boys who brooded alone, soft and wide-eyed and available. Boys who sat in each other’s laps in twos and in threes. Boys coaching rouged and heavy-lidded older men whose otherwise sheltered lives left them short on companionable warmth and close affection. There was one exception, wedged in the top of the vanity mirror. Not a portrait of any of the regular ingénues, and younger looking in the photograph than when we’d first made acquaintance not half an hour before. The subject was stretched on a dark satin sheet, eyes hooded, hair ruffled, one arm hooked toward the camera and the other propping his head, framing a bored, glassy look that said Remember me? He couldn’t have known it, but he might have been rehearsing for his final pose: spread in the beam of a police flashlight with a gunshot wound gaping where his hairline had been. I pulled the picture off the mirror and put it in a pocket. City Police would be making plenty of their own.
The rest of the floor was a tour of a very private and tax-free enterprise. A curtained passage at the side of the dresser had a darkroom leading off, strewn with brown glass bottles of chemicals and clear, still pools in trays. Pegged out to dry over the trays, more boys-only collector items, strung like flags waiting for a parade. Across the passage was the studio that went with the picture collection—a boudoir stage set from a Viennese operetta, walled around with gilt mirrors and choked in red plush. Center-stage was the oversize divan that featured in all the pictures, buried in pillows of rumpled red satin.
I left it at that, wound back into the corridor turning out lights as I went, and followed the reek of oil heater to a moldering bathroom. No surprises. The bathroom had a ragged square cut out of the wall over a washstand, and pointed through the square at the back of one of the boudoir mirrors was a Leica on a tripod; sleek, black and ready to go to work. All that was missing was the film. But then, not everything you open Christmas morning is a gift.
I knocked and waited at the only door showing a light, its two top stories boarded up, burned out in the same night raid as every other house in the court. The door cracked open on a nurse in uniform. Late twenties, medium height, standing in a cramped hall with a rag-rug on a red-tile floor and a photograph on the wall behind her, its frame plaited around with laurel twigs to mark the season. She was looking past me at the curtain of falling snow. I held up the councilor’s keys where she could read the address tag. “It’s about your neighbor, Miss …?” Then made a rueful mouth at the heavens that asked if I could step inside.
The nurse edged the door wider and moved aside. “Greer. Miss Greer.” She was buttoning a cape at her throat, touching a froth of dark hair at her forehead under the band of a starched white cap. The hall was an ice block, the tip of her nose red with cold.
I closed the door, took off my hat and stood dripping on her tile floor. “The report is you found your neighbor’s body this morning, Miss Greer. Even for a trained nurse that must have been quite a shock. I’d appreciate hearing how it happened.”
The question set deep lines in waves along her brow. She took a breath and said quietly, “There’s little to tell. Since it was Christmas, I went into St. Bartholomew’s on my way to work. When I came out, he was lying across the floor of the porch. It was unnerving. I had my pocket torch. If he’d been there when I walked in, I’m sure I would have seen him.”
“I’m sure you would have. What time was that exactly?”
She bit behind her lip and put pale dimples in her cheeks. “Normally I leave here at around a quarter to five, a little earlier this morning so I could go into the church. I might have spent ten minutes inside. I’m afraid I don’t know exactly.” An idea was bothering her. It swung her gaze up off her shoes for the first time since I walked in her door. “I was told to wait until a policeman came. But aren’t you American?”
In the photograph behind her a young flyer with a diffident smile looked surprised at finding himself in uniform. He was barely twenty, recently passed out of air school, still wearing the innocence he lost the first day he found out what the training was for. There is no way back to it, and every time she walked in the door it was the way she wanted to remember him. I opened the top of my coat, pulled a card from my wallet and put it in the fingertips peeking out from her cape. “I’m here for the owner of your neighbor’s house, Miss Greer. Anything you want to tell me will help, but you don’t have to say a thing. The only questions you absolutely have to answer are the ones a police detective will ask.”
Nurse Greer blinked at the card, as if she recalled a promise she once made not to talk to strangers. “What else is there to say? When I first saw him lying there, I supposed it was someone sleeping off Christmas Eve. Then when I saw blood everywhere and realized who it was, I tried to find out where he was hurt, but there was nothing I could do. Nothing anyone could have done. So I ran to the nearest telephone box, in West Smithfield.” She bit down hard on her lip again and waited for the story to grow on me.
“Did you know your neighbor, Miss Greer?”
“I wouldn’t say I knew him. He was living opposite.” Her chin jutted. “Most houses in the court are rented. People come and go. We spoke once or twice at most.”
“You knew his name?”
“He said Jarrett. Raymond, I think. I told him mine. It was practically all the conversation we had.”
“But you noticed his callers. I mean the good-looking boys and well-dressed older men.”
Nurse Greer stiffened then took another breath. “No, Mr. Newman. I’m hardly here to notice. When I’m not at the hospital, I’m working behind a bar. Why don’t you ask someone who has the time to pry? Now please…” She stepped across the hallway and reached for the latch, flattened against the wall not to get too close. You had to hand it to her. She hadn’t any powder on her nose or color on her cheeks or lipstick on her mouth. The hospital would have its rules. But there in the hallway, close enough to feel the flutter of her breath, hospital rules were doing Nurse Greer no harm at all.
I put a shoulder against the door. “The call you ran to the square to make. Did you see anybody else out walking? Think about it, Miss Greer. When City Police arrive, they’ll want to know.”
For two seconds her eyes drew the light out of the room, then saw the whole idea was ridiculous and gave it all back. “Before five o’clock on Christmas morning, in this weather? Did you see anyone? Look, I’ve already told you everything I can think of. I want you to go.”
“You didn’t tell me you lit a candle at the crib.”
Her knuckles whitened on the latch. She gave a small gasp of disbelief, put her head back against the wall and looked along the rose pattern on the wallpaper. “Because I didn’t imagine it could possibly interest you. As a matter of fact, just lately I light two. If a real police detective should ask me, I’ll be sure to tell him.”
I pulled my shoulder off the door and stepped aside, to give her room enough to throw me out.