THE BOOK FOLKS
© James Andrew
Polite note to the reader
This book is written in British English except where fidelity to other languages or accents is appropriate.
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Birtleby was Inspector Stephen Blades’ patch. Like any policeman, he knew what went wrong in it, and what went right; and it pleased him when things were quiet, as they had been lately. Like most towns in Britain, it was finding recovery from the Great War a slow process, but it was working on it. The men had returned and found their different ways to adjust to peace, though not all managed well. Women were adapting too. Some had lost men, and some had lost their chances of finding men; some had returned from wartime employment to domestic chores, and others were trying desperately to cling onto the greater independence that the war had offered them. Birtleby itself had found anew its pre-war cycle of rampant tourism in the summer, as the railway brought visitors to the town in what felt like hordes, followed by winters that were quiet, rainy, and windswept. Its small industries, too, were adjusting to peacetime needs. The button factory had returned to making buttons instead of military uniforms, and the boatyard was making fishing boats again.
There had been the usual cluster of drunken fights in the summer, petty vandalism, thefts, and even an outbreak of a series of arson attacks in outbuildings – and the culprits had been found for most of these crimes. Blades knew that winter would be a less busy time. There would be domestics, from which they seldom achieved a result, as wives might make complaints but rarely stuck to them long enough for anything to reach court. Police constables and sergeants handed out well-meaning advice to them but with little hope. Drunken fights still occurred though there were less than in the summer, and there was the occasional theft if not as many; and the odd housebreaking.
The limits of what the police could achieve did at times depress Blades. Take the arsons. They didn’t find out who started the fires, though local awareness had been built up to such a level that the culprit, whoever it was, had eventually taken fright and stopped. Blades pondered the purpose of the crimes. Had they been done by an adolescent with a misplaced grudge? Someone was giving expression to frustration, but serious harm did not seem to have been intended. In no case had there been danger to life, though things could have turned out otherwise, if any of the fires had gone out of control.
Blades often wondered at the emotions that lay under the bland expressions people presented as they went about their everyday business. As he walked down a street and glanced at them, he speculated about what those faces were hiding; he was aware everyone had secrets. He always noticed the instinctive nervousness people showed at meeting with policemen. Was it because of guilt at something they had done at some time, or at something they might be tempted to do, hopefully minor, though, as he knew, not always? At times, it felt as if he were walking amongst a series of unexploded mines. Who knew which detonator might be primed and ready? Yet, he reminded himself, these were ordinary people going about lives that would be for the most part reputable. It was his policeman’s mind that saw the capacity for lawlessness wherever he looked, and he knew that, with most people, it would never come to pass. When it did, it often felt random, like those arson fires, but he knew there was a path that led to crime. He had heard it explained by countless criminals when they were finally brought to justice. Along the way, they had made choices, which might have appeared harmless but had culminated in a final decision that wasn’t. They talked of the circumstances that had led to their misdemeanours, blamed their upbringings as often as not, and sometimes Blades could feel a measure of pity, though he knew these were excuses. Something had changed in them on their journeys. What had that been?
Blades tutted at himself, dismissed his musings, and returned to the task in hand. He was at his desk in the police station, studying a police constable’s report. There was a gas lamp above his head, giving its patch of light. A conversion to electricity was scheduled but had not arrived. The report concerned a series of bicycle thefts. Constable Flockhart had caught the culprit in the act one night, and he had confessed to the others once he was under arrest in the police station. When Blades read the report, it initially read like an open-and-shut case, but he knew that depended on the presentation of evidence. Were the constable’s reports accurately and properly done? Had the confession been taken under correct formal procedures? Blades shuffled the papers on his desk as he gave thought to this. Flockhart was off duty, but Blades would see him in the morning, with questions prepared.
It was quiet in the office. Blades was, for once, by himself. Sergeant Peacock had been at court that day, giving evidence in another case and had not returned yet, though he would soon. The gas fire guttered. Wind blew rain against the window. As Blades glanced out, he became more aware of the darkness of the night, and the relative pleasantness of the office. Looking at the weather, it felt as if he was in an oasis of light and warmth.
Then the door opened, and Peacock was there, bringing in the brisk, late October air as he took off his heavy coat and his tweed cap.
‘Did it go well?’ Blades asked.
‘We got the conviction,’ Peacock replied. ‘Not that we know the sentence yet.’
‘It’ll be a good one,’ Blades said. ‘Peabody’s hard on burglary. How was defence counsel?’
‘Leadbetter? As grim as usual. He tried to trip me up about the time of the incidents, but I was ready for him.’
‘Any tea on the go? I could do with warming up a bit.’ Peacock walked over to the stove and held both hands close to it.
The office door opened again, and this time it was the uniform of Sergeant Ryan that Blades was faced with as he stepped in with a report in his hand and Blades wondered what it could be.
‘What’s the problem, Ryan?’ he said.
‘It’s like this, sir.’
Sergeant Ryan was a large man with a firmly featured face that normally gave a reassuring impression of strength, so that when the lines of his forehead were creased into anxiety as now, it was disconcerting. Blades wondered whose psychological fuse had been lit.
Blades now found himself in the living-room-cum-kitchen of a worker’s cottage opposite a worried-looking mother and father, and with Peacock beside him – still with no cup of tea but looking no less alert for that. The room was bare and simply furnished and Blades did not even give it a glance as he concentrated on the couple opposite him.
‘You reported your daughter missing,’ Blades was saying to Mrs Harkwright. ‘Missing Person reports don’t always involve me, but Sergeant Ryan expressed concern. So, when was the last time you heard from your daughter?’
‘About a week ago,’ Minnie Harkwright replied.
Minnie Harkwright was a middle-aged, broad-faced woman who looked a bit uncared-for, with untidy hair and a rumpled dress, as if more important things than her appearance concerned her. She had a kindly set to her face, Blades thought, but her most prominent feature was her anxious eyes.
‘And you reported this when?’
‘Why so long in reporting it?’
‘We don’t see her every day. She’s independent. She has her own place. It wasn’t unusual to hear nothing from her.’
‘You didn’t worry at first?’
‘No, but a week was longer than usual not to hear anything, and she is my daughter. I went over to where she’s staying and got no reply. The whole place is locked up. Neighbours say the draper’s shop hasn’t been open in all that time and I’ve never heard of that before.’
‘Has Emma worked with the Roots for long?’
‘About a year. As an assistant. They give her a room above the shop too, staying with them, and she helps out in the house now and again. The Roots seemed alright to me. Perfectly respectable. You ask anyone.’
‘I’m sure you look out for her.’
Blades agreed with her that Emma’s disappearance sounded worrying. What made it of even more concern was that not only had Emma Simpson been reported missing, but, on inquiry, he’d discovered the Roots had disappeared too. ‘Emma Simpson’s your daughter’s name?’
‘And you’re Mrs Minnie Harkwright?’
‘She married and then her husband died in the Great War, but she kept his name. I married again, too, if it comes to that. Andy died in the influenza epidemic at the end of the war. I was a Maitland then. But I found John, and we married and we’re both happy Harkwrights now.’ A fleeting smile found its way onto her face.
‘I see.’ Blades glanced across at her husband. John Harkwright was a short but burly man with large rough hands hewn in some working man’s trade. He was bald with a thick moustache and sideburns, with a somewhat ill-favoured face, but strongly masculine, and Blades could see that some women would be drawn to him. He looked about ten years younger than Minnie.
‘Do you think you’ll be able to find her?’ John asked, and Blades noticed a wheedling tone in his speech; John was at least giving the impression he wanted Emma found.
‘We’ll try, sir.’ Blades allowed himself to study John Harkwright further. ‘Were you here when Emma last visited?’
‘Yes, he was,’ Minnie replied quickly. ‘And he’s as anxious as I am.’
‘I’m sure,’ Blades replied.
Peacock lifted his eyes from his notebook at that point. ‘Did you and Emma get on?’ he asked.
As it was Minnie who replied instead of John, Peacock gave her a questioning look. ‘Can’t Mr Harkwright answer for himself?’ he said.
Minnie didn’t reply to that. John did this time, but he did not look towards Peacock but towards Blades. ‘I’ve never been married before,’ he said. ‘Never had anything to do with children. I was ever so pleased Minnie said yes to me. And I wouldn’t do anything to Emma.’
Blades registered the tone of indignation in John’s voice as he spoke the last sentence.
‘Did you find it difficult to adjust to becoming a stepfather?’ Blades asked.
‘I wouldn’t say I was that,’ John replied. ‘Emma came along with Minnie, that’s all, and she was fully grown, not to mention a widow herself.’
‘She did come back to stay at first after her husband died,’ Minnie said, ‘but she’s so independent. She was off like a shot when that situation at the draper’s turned up. She was a draper’s assistant before she married so it was a place that suited her. But she’d have been welcome here. I know I had a new man about the house, but it wouldn’t have worried me if she’d stayed till she found herself someone, though, mind you, how many men are there left to find after the war?’
Blades had watched Minnie carefully. Minnie meant what she said but Blades did wonder how convenient it would have been for them had Emma continued living with her and John; and he could see why Emma might not have wanted to be in the way and spoil her mother’s chance of happiness. Or, were there other reasons why she wanted to be away from John Harkwright? Blades studied him again.
‘What did you say you worked at, Mr Harkwright?’
‘I didn’t but I work as a builder’s labourer with Johnstone’s the local firm.’
‘Have you been there long, sir?’
‘Since I came back after the war. Mind you, I worked with them before I went out too, for about five years. It’s a steady job. I’m lucky.’
‘Quite. A lot of people struggled to get work again after the war. So, where did you serve?’
‘I was out in Africa.’
‘I expect it was difficult out there too, was it?’
‘I’m glad I wasn’t in the trenches. But yes, it was.’
Now Minnie entered the conversation again, an impatient look on her face. ‘She was cheerful enough when she was last here – as ever. How could she disappear like this?’
‘We’ll do our best to find out,’ Blades replied. ‘What did Emma talk about the last time you saw her?’
‘The usual things. What was it she was going on about then? Work. Customers who came in. The last row between the Roots.’
Peacock interjected again. ‘The Roots don’t get on with each other?’ he asked.
‘Emma says they do as long as Amelia does what she’s told. And who can do that all the time?’
‘I see,’ Peacock said.
‘Emma didn’t mention she was seeing a boyfriend?’ Blades asked.
‘She doesn’t have one at the moment.’
‘There was one?’
‘There was Alfred Duggan, but she finished with him.’
‘Can you tell me more about him?’
‘It was me that told her to end it with him.’
That sounded familiar, Blades thought. He came across that in his line of work, mothers warning daughters away from unsuitable men, and they could turn out to be worse than even the mothers thought.
‘Which was why?’
‘He was no good. He was a bigamist, and he did time for that.’
‘Ah,’ Blades said. Yes. Any mother would warn her daughter away from a man like that. He gave Mr Duggan some thought, then remembered he’d heard of him, when he’d come out of prison about a year before.
‘When we found out about that, we told her all about him, and that was the end of that. Emma had enough sense to steer clear of the likes of him once she knew all about him.’
‘Had she been keen on him?’
‘Oh, he’s a good-looking fellow and he’s all charm. Women do fall for him. That’s how he ended up in jail.’
‘So, when did Emma split up with him?’
‘Not that long ago, only a couple of weeks. But she had done with him.’
Blades gave that thought as well. When did parents know everything their children did or didn’t do? No doubt Emma had said she would finish with her man to please her mother, but had she? ‘Do you know how I might get in touch with this Alfred Duggan?’ he asked.
‘He works for Harrison’s,’ Minnie said. ‘Though why they have any truck with him, I couldn’t say. When he’s in Birtleby, he stays in the Commercial.’
‘We’ll put some effort into investigating this,’ Blades said. ‘We will try to find Emma for you.’
And they had better check out the Roots’ premises first, Blades thought. He stood up ready to go, and that seemed to be that, till Blades turned to face Harkwright. ‘Incidentally, you still haven’t answered Sergeant Peacock’s question.’ Blades hadn’t liked the way Harkwright had skirted round the query. Harkwright looked shocked at attention being turned on him again.
‘I’m sure I did. Didn’t I? What was the question again?’
‘How well did you get on with Emma, sir?’ Peacock asked.
John looked flustered but answered quickly enough. ‘I liked Emma. I always got on fine with her. Why do you ask me about that?’
Blades turned his glance to Minnie, who was looking indignant as well.
‘John and Emma got on well. Just find Emma, will you.’
As he turned to go again, Blades simply nodded.
Blades and Peacock stood outside Roots the drapers with two constables beside them. It was a large Victorian building with spired roofing and weathered, dark stone, and there was something forbidding about it, perhaps the smallness of the stone-lintelled windows in the upper storeys, suggesting a lack of light inside.
On the ground floor, the shop itself had a large glass frontage with gold lettering in the sign above the window – Roots: Draper and Milliner – all calculated to draw the eye. But there was an eeriness about the window display of jackets and dresses, arranged as if for wear, but empty of the people they were made for. Blades wondered what they would find inside the building. He pulled the doorbell, which made a clanging sound deep inside the house, enough to waken the dead, Blades thought, then wished that hadn’t occurred to him.
Blades waited for a few moments after the clanging had stopped as he listened for any sound there might be from inside, but there was nothing. Then he pulled at the doorbell again. The bell reverberated impressively but still provoked no response. Blades stepped back from the door and nodded to the larger of the two constables. Constable Peters stepped forward, examined the door, then shoulder charged it but to no avail, although it shuddered. He stood back and looked at it again, then, lifting his right leg, he jumped at the door with his full weight behind his foot, which hit the door just at the handle. Fortunately, it was the door that gave with a satisfying snap. The constable tumbled in as the door opened in front of him, and Blades and Peacock strode in behind him.
Blades looked for an electricity switch but there wasn’t one, so he took out his flashlight. They were at the bottom of a stairway. Blades flashed his light around, finding himself looking at walls and a shuttered window, before he started on his climb of the stairs. At the top of these was a hallway with several doors off it. Blades opened one, which led into a parlour. There was a gaslight. Peacock turned at the handle, then took out a match and lit the mantle. The gaslight sputtered into life as its pale glow spread through the room.
It was an ordinary front parlour with painted floorboards and rug runners, long sweeping curtains, velour-upholstered chairs and an ornate, carved, mahogany fireplace. Blades noticed that one of the rugs appeared to be kicked back out of place and walked over to look there. He held his flashlight and peered closely. There. Yes. Just there. On a floorboard, one or two dark specks of what looked like blood. He would have that confirmed. Blades peered round the rest of the room without seeing anything of note.
He and Peacock walked through the first floor, looking for signs of anything misplaced, something that might show there had been violent happenings here, in particular other signs of blood. Then they walked upstairs and examined the bedrooms and the bathroom. As Blades turned to go downstairs again, he thought at least they hadn’t found a body. However, although there might be different explanations for the odd stain in the parlour, all of them innocent, no reason had yet been found for three people being missing from this house. Blades had just entered the parlour again and was looking around him, when he heard the shout. It was the voice of a man.
‘What? Who did this?’
That was followed by a female voice.
‘Someone’s broken in. Don’t go in, Thomas. They might still be there.’
But Blades noticed the advice did not deter Thomas as the sound of feet told. Then Thomas met one of his constables.
‘Don’t enter here, please, sir. This is a crime scene.’
‘How dare you tell me what to do in my own house? I’ll go wherever I like.’
Then Blades called out, ‘It’s all right, Constable, let them in.’
‘As you will, sir,’ the constable replied.
Blades found himself face to face with a red-faced, indignant-looking, large man in his fifties.
‘Explain yourself,’ Thomas Root said to Blades. ‘What are you doing in my house?’
‘Mr Thomas Root?’ Blades asked.
‘And who else would it be?’ he replied.
‘And this will be Amelia, your wife,’ Blades said, looking at a slight woman with thin grey hair who had entered just after Thomas.
‘Of course, it is,’ Thomas said. ‘And we live here. What are you doing in our house?’
Blades took out his card as he introduced himself. ‘I’m Inspector Blades and this is Sergeant Peacock. There’s nothing to alarm yourself with regarding your house, sir. We see no signs of a break-in or a burglary, though, in any case, you might like to check to see that nothing’s missing. We’re glad to see that you’re not. That was a question which was raised with us. That’s what we were checking up on – as is our duty as police officers.’
‘Checking up? You’ve broken down my front door, which you’ll pay for.’
‘I’m sorry about that, sir, but you were not at home. Can you tell me where you were?’
‘I was on a week’s break at Amelia’s sister’s house in the country. Which is hardly out of the ordinary. Why would you think it was?’
Then something struck Thomas and he looked vaguely around him.
‘Surely Emma told you that? She’s here somewhere, isn’t she?’
‘Would you expect her to be?’
‘Why yes. We left her in charge of the house and the shop while we were away. The shop had to be open as usual.’
‘I realise this is difficult for you to adjust to, coming home to this. I’m sorry but it was necessary. We didn’t know where you were, and we still don’t know where Emma is – her parents have reported her missing.’
‘What do you mean Emma’s missing?’
‘She hasn’t been seen for a week.’
‘But the shop. She must have been working in that?’
‘It’s been closed all week, which is why we thought something might have happened to her – and to you.’
‘I see.’ Now that Thomas understood the reason for police being in his house, he was calmer. Amelia was the more upset now.
‘What can have happened to Emma? She’s alright, isn’t she?’
Blades searched for reassuring words but didn’t find any. ‘That’s the question we’re here to investigate. Do you know of any reason why Emma might have decided to go off somewhere?’
Thomas and Amelia looked at each other. Thomas’s face took on a look of self-righteousness as he said, ‘She had work to do. There was the shop to run, and the house to be looked after. What reason could she have had to go off?’
‘Was there a young man she was interested in?’
Thomas gave a snort of what sounded like disgust.
‘There was that Alfred Duggan,’ Amelia said, ‘for a while, but she finished with him.’
Blades noted the now familiar name.
‘After what I caught her up to with him, she was definitely finished with him in this house,’ Thomas said.
‘Did she say she was planning to go away anywhere?’
‘Not at all,’ Thomas said, ‘and certainly not when she was supposed to be working.’
‘Did she have any friends we can talk to about her?’
‘No one who came around,’ Amelia said, ‘and she didn’t speak of anybody.’
‘I see,’ Blades said. A friendless young woman, he thought, and wondered if it was true. But he supposed he had found out what he could from the Roots for just now.
‘Incidentally,’ Blades said, and paused.
‘Yes?’ Thomas said.
‘Is there any reason why there would be bloodstains in the parlour?’
‘Bloodstains?’ Thomas replied.
‘In the parlour?’ Amelia asked.
‘Not that I know of,’ Thomas said.
‘That can’t be true,’ Amelia added, ‘unless’ – she paused – ‘the maid did manage to knock over a bottle of port in there. It was newly opened too, almost full. I had to take that out of her wages, the careless girl. Would that be it?’
Blades gave that some thought. ‘No,’ he said.
‘Then I can’t think what that might have been,’ Amelia said.
‘I see,’ Blades said, wondering about his, though he tried to keep the look on his face neutral. ‘When would be the last time you saw Emma?’ he asked.
Thomas looked across at Amelia. ‘On the Saturday, when we were leaving, which must have been about… let’s see… ten o’clock in the morning?’
Amelia nodded her head at this.
‘How did you travel?’
‘Why do you want to know that?’ Thomas asked.
‘It’s just a detail. We like to build up pictures in our minds, that’s all.
‘I see. We travelled by car,’ Thomas replied.
‘You said you were at your wife’s sister’s house in the country. Where exactly would that have been?’
‘I see. And how did Emma seem when you left?’ Blades asked.
‘Seem?’ Thomas said, frowning as he thought about the question.
‘Just as usual,’ Amelia said. ‘Nervous of the responsibility, I suppose, but I had the idea she was looking forward to it.’
‘She didn’t seem like anything, just as she always did,’ Thomas said. ‘She wasn’t anxious or excited about anything. She could have done with worrying about things a bit more, I always thought. She had no thoughts in her head apart from what her romantic novels put there.’
Blades supposed that at least could be true.
‘And could we just check with you which is Emma’s room?’ Blades asked. ‘We need to check to see if she took clothes and baggage with her.’
‘I’ll show you,’ Amelia said, and led Blades and Peacock upstairs to the top storey, where the three of them found themselves standing in a tiny room under the eaves, with barely enough room for all three to get inside at the same time. Blades and Peacock had already had a quick look round, but their eyes swept around the place with more care now.
It was a bare room with a narrow bed, a washstand, a wardrobe, and a chair, with not much room for anything else, apart from a tiny wall mirror and a religious tract saying ‘Jesus Saves’. There was nothing cheerful in her room to keep her at the Roots’, Blades thought.
‘Her bag’s still here,’ Amelia said, pointing to the top of the wardrobe. ‘She only had one, I’m sure, though I couldn’t swear to that. Why would a girl her age own more than one case?’ Amelia opened the wardrobe door and peered inside. ‘There are a couple of spare dresses in here. I can’t believe she didn’t have more than that though I never paid that much attention to what she wore.’ Then Amelia opened the wardrobe drawer. ‘Plenty of underclothing here, which doesn’t mean she didn’t have any more. I don’t know. I’m not being much help, am I?’
‘Can you think of anything distinctive she might have been wearing?’ Blades asked.
Amelia thought for a moment or two, then replied, ‘She isn’t a flamboyant dresser, but let’s see. Oh, there was a ring she wore on her right hand – as well as the wedding ring on the left one.’
‘Can you describe it?’
‘Silver. With a heart shape, though she’d no initials on it or anything.’
‘That could be useful,’ Blades said.
‘And she wore a bracelet. A silver one. A sort of chain. But I can’t really describe it any better than that. Sorry.’
‘Did she talk of going anywhere?’ Blades asked.
‘No. And she’s never gone off before. I couldn’t even tell you of anywhere she might have gone to.’
‘I see. Thank you,’ Blades said.
There being nowhere else to search in that small room, Blades and Peacock did not linger. If there was anything else they had thought they might be looking for, they had not found it.
The Roots were displeased when they were told they could not stay in their own home due to their house and shop being a possible crime scene. Blades and Peacock needed time to search them properly. Fortunately, Thomas Root had a sister who also lived in Birtleby. The shop was searched this time, and the basement, as was an outdoor shed. As of yet, the only sign of anything untoward was the apparent bloodstain that Blades had spotted earlier.
Mr Root wanted to know when he could open for business again, but Blades could not tell him. With no signs of an incident elsewhere, he supposed anything that had occurred must have taken place in the parlour, and samples had been taken of the stain there. Meanwhile, Blades and Peacock busied themselves with fingerprint powder and photographs. Blades knew the necessity of being thorough, though he felt he could almost hear his Chief Constable’s voice in his head. ‘This is only a missing person case. Why are you spending so long on it? There’s no body. You need one of those to prove it’s murder.’ But Blades knew he would not regret the time he was spending now if one did turn up. In any case, Blades had an ominous feeling. Bloodstains – and that is what he was assuming they were – in the most public room in the house, were worrying.
He ordered a meeting for the next day of the whole station staff so that he could delegate his sergeants and constables. The first thing to be checked was whether Emma had set off for somewhere. She had obviously left at short notice, anyway, if that was what she had done. If she had, someone must have seen her. Inquiries would be made at the railway station, and the tram and bus stations. Wires would be sent to different police stations within Yorkshire, and also further afield. Questions would also be asked at lodging houses, and hotels. If Emma was travelling, she needed to stay somewhere, though Blades wondered why she would travel anywhere, and, apparently in secret. The most likely explanation might be because of a violent argument. Or, was she in debt? Was there a young man she was travelling with, or to – at the moment unknown to them?
They had little to go on, leaving only questions. Had Emma had an argument with Alfred Duggan? Was she afraid of him? They had been told by two different people that she had finished with him. Had she not succeeded in doing that? What had his reaction been? Or, leaving aside the unproven ‘bloodstain’, if her parents had forbidden her to have anything to do with him, could Emma and Alfred have run away together? If proof of violence at the Roots’ premises did transpire, Blades would then order an extended search for a body in the local area, which was what he expected to end up doing. One thing they did need to do straight away was interview that Alfred Duggan, if he was still around.
The Commercial was well known in Birtleby; it had been a popular lodging house with commercial travellers for the last fifty years. A plain-looking woman with greying hair, wearing a frayed home-knitted cardigan in dingy brown, greeted them as she answered the door. Blades gathered that the business, if well established, was not prosperous. The natural wariness on her face at the sight of Blades’ card she dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders, as she showed them into the lounge with the wry remark, ‘You’ve caught up with him then. And a good job too I’m sure.’
Blades and Peacock found themselves in a parlour. Blades was struck by the large maps in frames that decorated the walls. One was a map of Yorkshire, while another covered the whole of Great Britain, and, yet another, Europe, with business cards stuck higgledy-piggledy into the frames. Blades’ impression was that these recommended other places where the fraternity of salesmen was welcome. The room was also filled with several, large-winged, worn leather chairs which were empty. In the furthest corner was a desk, with a phone on it, and various papers and writing implements; at this was seated a young man with a pen in his hand writing in what appeared to be a book of accounts. This was Alfred Duggan.
‘The police, Alfred,’ the woman said, then laughed. ‘What have you been up to now?’
Alfred put the pen down with a frown that was instantly dismissed in favour of a welcoming smile. Blades’ first impression was that this was a man that women would be drawn to. He had a lean frame with broad shoulders, neat, fair hair that shone in the light, and unusual eyes; they were a light shade of blue that drew the eye, with a streak of brown in the cornea of each, and a luminosity that was compelling. Considering that Duggan was facing two policemen, Blades was impressed by the wholeheartedness of the look of welcome on his face.
‘Sorry to disturb you, sir,’ Blades said.
‘No problem,’ Duggan replied. ‘How can I help?’
‘I’ll leave you to it,’ the woman said. Blades thanked her as she left, then considered Duggan.
‘I believe you know Emma Simpson.’
A hesitant look appeared on Duggan’s face followed by one of decisiveness.
‘I don’t know who you mean,’ he said.
Blades noticed that Peacock could not suppress a short laugh, and he resisted the temptation to do the same.
‘You’ve been courting her,’ Blades said. ‘Her parents say so. They gave us your name and your address, and here you are, Mr Alfred Duggan himself.’
A vague look had overtaken Alfred’s face, which was one that seemed prone to sudden changes.
‘Emma?’ Duggan said.
‘She works at Roots, the drapers,’ Blades said.
‘A brunette,’ Peacock said. ‘Neat figure. Curly hair. Good legs.’
Duggan’s eyes swivelled towards Peacock’s. ‘Ah,’ he said, as he gave what appeared to be an impersonation of a man to whom something had dawned upon, which in itself turned into an imitation of a puzzled man.
‘Emma? Wait a minute,’ Duggan said. ‘Yes. I did date someone of that name for a few weeks.’
‘You’ve just remembered you dated her for a few weeks?’ Peacock sneered.
‘That’s right. But I haven’t seen her in some time. Is there a problem? Nothing’s happened to her, has it?’
‘That’s what we would like to find out,’ Blades said. ‘She hasn’t been seen for a while, which is why her parents have reported her missing. She was last seen about a week ago by her employers, the Roots, before they left for a week’s break, leaving her in charge of the shop and house – not that she opened the shop all week. We wondered why. Can you shed any light on that?’
‘I don’t see how I can,’ Alfred said. ‘It’s a few weeks since I saw her. We decided to stop seeing each other.’
‘And what was the reason for that?’
‘Sometimes things work out. Sometimes they don’t.’ He shrugged his shoulders. And now his face was one of bewildered innocence. ‘Emma wanted to finish it. Maybe she’d found someone else. I don’t know.’
‘You wouldn’t know who that someone else was?’ Peacock asked.
‘Or maybe she didn’t. Emma wasn’t all that specific about what the problem was.’
‘It wasn’t her parents, was it?’ Blades asked. ‘According to her mother, she’d warned Emma about you.’
‘I suppose Emma did mention something of the sort.’
‘You’re a convicted bigamist and her mother had found that out?’ Peacock said.
Alfred’s expression was now one of controlled indignation. ‘A spiteful thing to tell her, I thought, but predictable enough.’
‘Especially as you’re still married,’ Peacock said.
‘So, where’s this going?’ Alfred asked.
‘Can I ask you again when the last time was that you saw Emma?’ Blades asked.
Alfred pursed his brows in thought, and Blades did wonder why he would have to consider the answer quite so carefully.
‘Three weeks ago,’ he said. ‘When Emma told me that she was finishing with me, following her mother’s advice. We were in the park. It was raining. She walked out on me and told me to leave her alone. I did.’
‘Which is two weeks before she disappeared?’
‘We do tend to ask a lot of questions, and we ask them of a lot of people. If we discover you saw her later than that, it’ll look suspicious.’
‘Will it?’ The expression on Duggan’s face was now one of bland disinterest. Blades might have thought Duggan had been asked a question about the weather. Blades wondered what had made him apparently so less wary. And why the need for such defensiveness in the first place?
‘Why did you deny knowing Emma Simpson when you so obviously do?’ Peacock asked.
‘You’re the police. I knew something was up. I didn’t know what it was.’
The ‘bloodstain’ still preyed on Blades’ mind, but he supposed none of this did necessarily mean Duggan had done anything to Emma. He had a record for liking women too much, not for violence. The man was probably just a habitual liar. That would fit with what Blades supposed of his lifestyle.
‘We would like a statement from you about your relationship with Miss Emma Simpson and in particular the place and time of your last meeting with her.’
The look on Duggan’s face was now indecipherable, but Blades noticed something had switched off that luminosity in the eyes.