As If By Magic
London, October 1923
George Lassiter huddled against the entrance of Hyde Park Corner tube station, sheltering from the icy sting of the sleet-filled rain. Yesterday he had been well-dressed in a top hat, evening clothes and thin leather patent shoes but now, although he still wore the same clothes, his hat was shapeless with rain, his shoes were like sodden cardboard and his white waistcoat and tail coat defenceless against the biting cold.
He looked to where taxis, cars and buses clogged Knightsbridge in a dark, noisy river. Their headlights caught the sleet-flecked crowds, secure in winter overcoats, gloves and hats. Umbrellas sprang up like black mushrooms, cocooning their owners in impenetrable, urgent circles. People; hundreds and hundreds of people. People - so many people - weren't really people any more. He wanted to reach out, to say, "Stop!" He wanted someone in this barricaded, jostling mass of inhumanity to pause, to look, to speak, but no one spared him a glance.
His hands were numb and raw. He shielded them under his arms and leaned his head against the cold wet tiles of the tube station. He closed his eyes, hoping like a gambler about to make a final, desperate throw, for a miracle. Perhaps when he opened his eyes there would be someone - anyone - who could help. The traffic ground on, the newspaper seller shouted, the rain lanced down. He took a deep breath and opened his eyes. Nothing.
He turned up his collar and trudged away from the crowds pouring down the steps to the underground. They were heading for Acton and Ealing, Holland Park and home. They would have firesides and food, and perhaps a welcoming smile and the thump of a sleepy dog's tail. And as for him? Nothing. He loathed the rain and the bricks and the stones and the soot and the careless, unconscious cruelty of all who hurried through this man-made desert of London. His head ached and he had to lean against a shop window before he could walk on. His legs felt like rubber and the pavement swum dizzily in front of him. He stumbled across the road to the great dark space of Hyde Park. Here at least were grass and trees and space but the wind-whipped rain was even fiercer than it had been in the shelter of the streets.
He walked on. George didn't know where he was and didn't care. He seemed to have been wandering for hours. He had spent last night in Euston Station where, although uncomfortable, he'd been under cover. He'd been a fool to leave the entrance to the underground. He'd been imprisoned by the crowds but at least the station had given some sort of shelter.
His head was really hurting now and he suspected an attack of malaria was in the offing. He left the park behind him and crossed a wide, traffic-choked road into a maze of quiet streets where flat-chested, elegant and forbidding houses ran in endless lines, caged in by iron railings. If they weren't caged in, thought George, all the houses might escape. He held onto the railings and laughed. The sound of his laugh shocked him. Dear God, if he really did go down with malaria now there would be no hope at all. He fought down the sick taste of panic. Sheer will power made him take a deep breath, let go of the railings and straighten up. He needed to think of something else other than how he felt. He forced himself to look at his surroundings properly.
For some reason his spirits lifted. Although he was drenched to the skin and bitterly cold, the rain had subsided into ill-natured squalls and the empty streets glistening under the lamp-light were oddly appealing. Sort of… cosy, he thought. It was like a play-town on a nursery carpet. He looked at his hand and his hand seemed large enough to cover these toy-town houses and pick them up, one by one. He'd had a toy zoo and a gleaming ribbon of brass that encircled the nursery with an exciting noisy little train that chugged along with real steam. He could move the houses so they…
He stopped himself abruptly, alarmed. What the devil was happening to him? His mind was wandering and everything was too small, as if he had stepped into a shrunken world. His legs and neck were sore. Malaria, thought George, with a touch of panic. He had to find somewhere to rest soon. Even a shop doorway or a park bench would have done but there were no shops and the park was far behind.
With clumsy, hesitant steps he walked on. His legs were stiff and it hurt to move. He half-leaned, half-fell against a set of railings and looked through them down to where light streamed from a window into the area of the house. That's what they called the yard, he thought. The word had puzzled him when he first arrived in London. He must be looking into someone's kitchen. There was a pair of hands - he could only see the hands - washing-up, making the water dance in the bowl. The hands shook themselves and withdrew from sight. It was such a domestic scene that his eyes pricked with tears and he drew the back of his hand across his eyes. These spear-railed houses were homes and people could be happy in them.
He'd never thought of anyone actually having a home in London before. London was a dirty, complicated, alien sprawl, not a collection of homes. It must be strange to know one of these endlessly duplicated Portland stone boxes as home and yet, clinging to the railings and gazing down onto that wedge of light on the wet stone flags of the yard, he thought he could find his way about inside one of these boxes. Everything had seemed too small and now everything seemed too big. It would be like a fairy story or a folk tale. There would be giant rooms populated by giants… His head swum and he tightened his grip on the railings.
The sound of voices and a basement door being shut in the yard of the next house made him look up. Three women, servants at a guess, came up the steps and on to the pavement. One, a plump, comfortable-looking sort, turned to her companion and made a face. "I hope this is worth it, Elsie. I'd just as soon stay in my nice warm kitchen on a night like this." Elsie laughed and replied, her words lost in a gust of wind. To his relief they went down the street, away from where he was holding onto the railings. He could hardly feel his hands any more. He waited until the echoes of their feet had died away before moving.
George walked slowly to the steps where the women had come from. A soft light flickered through the window. There would be a fire in there. Warmth. The rain slashed down again and he shivered. He wanted to be inside that house. A huge desire rose in him. It wasn't any house, it was this house which drew him. There was something about it which touched a shy, lost place deep inside. He was so very cold and the light looked so inviting… but it was someone else's house and that, to George, was a mountainous barrier.
If the cook had banked up the fire properly or made sure the damper was close down, he would have walked on. As it was, he stood gazing at the light as if it were a glimpse of Paradise. There was something about the very bricks and mortar of this place which called to him. The street was totally deserted. Opening the iron gate, he went down the steps as quietly as he could, listening for any noise. From far away he could hear the measured tread of a policeman's feet and the sound made him panic. A policeman would stop him. He tried the handle but it was locked, of course. Minutes before George would have been shocked at the thought of breaking into a stranger's house. Now it was unthinkable that he couldn't get in. As the steps grew closer he even considered smashing the window, then suddenly smiled - his first smile for many hours - and felt under the mat. Seconds later he was turning the key in the door.
Inside the kitchen and with his back to the door he heard the steps pass by on the street above. Nerves on edge he approached the fire warily, then slumped to his knees on the hearthrug, wincing as the heat stung his frozen body. He sat in front of the black-leaded range, blissfully content. It must have been over five minutes later before he could think of anything but the fire but with time came caution. He could almost imagine his ears had pricked like a dog's as he strained to hear any sound from the rest of the house. None came. Unconsciously he relaxed and, greatly daring, took the poker, stirred up the fire and raised the damper.
The fire blazed, sending light around the room. On the kitchen table was a plate of sandwiches, covered by a glass bowl. It had been yesterday since he had eaten. As he finished the last of the sandwiches, he guiltily realised he had probably eaten the servants' supper. He felt bad about that, remembering that plump, agreeable woman and her companions, but the taste of food had made him realise how thirsty he was. A latched plank door stood to one side of the room. The larder? He opened the catch of the door and pulled it back as quietly as he could. On a marble slab, surrounded by the packets and boxes that lined the shelves, were two tin jugs full of milk. He couldn't see a cup so drank straight from the jug - another thing that until half an hour or so ago would have been unthinkable.
George slipped back into the kitchen. His clothes had started to steam in the heat, he could feel his hands and feet properly once more, and the savage desire for food and drink had been quelled. It was with a self-conscious grin that he realised what he now wanted more than anything in the world was a cigarette. After the necessities, luxury, he thought, and realised, with a certain amount of irony, that the craving for the one was quite as great as the craving for the other. He walked round the kitchen with a boldness which would have horrified him earlier and turned up a packet of Players, a box of matches and a tin ashtray beside the tea caddy. If anything he was now too warm, so he retreated into a corner chair behind the kitchen table and lit the cigarette, sucking in the smoke gratefully. He would have his cigarette and go. Of course he must go. The rain pattered against the window and he shuddered. He couldn't go yet. The servants were out. Surely he was safe for another hour at least? It had been many hours since he'd slept and he'd been walking all day and the kitchen was so blissfully warm. He'd just finish this cigarette....
He awoke with an alarmed start but was instantly still. With a sick feeling, he realised there were other people in the room. The fire had died down and he shrank back against the dark wall. They'd switch on the lights, see him and it would all be over. He sat tensely in the darkness waiting to be discovered. What could he say? Why didn't they speak? Surprise tinged his fear as he realised that the people in the room were being very, very quiet. Why?
He narrowed his eyes, peering into fire-lit shadows. There were two men and a woman. What were they doing? Had they broken in too?
"Why here?" The whisper sounded clearly. He thought it was the woman who'd spoken.
"Are you sure we're safe?" It was one of the men.
"Stop worrying," said the other man in a low voice. "All the servants are out, he's having a bath and she's listening to the wireless. We'll be fine."
The woman gave a dismissive laugh. "In that case, let's get on with it, shall we?"
There was a pause. The shapes moved in front of the fire. One of the men stood back, then, without further ado, the other man took the woman in his arms and kissed her passionately. George watched in disbelief. Was he dreaming? The two shapes clung together, the woman's hair golden where the firelight caught it.
The shapes separated. "Say you love me," whispered the woman. "Go on. You must say it. I want you to say it."
The man held the woman at arm's length. "I love you," he said softly. With a little cry, she collapsed in his arms.
The man gave a stifled cry and then, still holding her, laid her down on the rug in front of the fire. He knelt down beside her and held her hand. He put his hand on her chest and breathed out in a long hissing gasp. He moved, black against the light, to look up at the man standing beside the hearth. "I... I don't like this. She's not breathing. Really. She's not breathing."
The other man laughed. "Are you surprised? It's what you wanted. It's what both of you wanted. A perfect death. You've got it."
The man on the rug stooped over the woman and touched her hair. "I didn't realise it'd be like this."
"What did you expect? Stop worrying."
A bell jangled from the next room, followed by the distant sound of three knocks. Both men froze, then the man kneeling by the hearth stood up. "Damn! There's someone at the door. We'll have to go. We can't be found in here. What... what shall we do about her?"
"Leave her for the moment. It'll be all right."
The two men walked to the door leading into the house and, going through it, shut it quietly behind them.
George swallowed and cautiously got up from his corner. It had to be a dream. He held onto the kitchen table and could feel the real, solid wood beneath his hand. But the girl was still there, stretched in front of the fire and she couldn't be real. He had to have dreamt it. Hardly liking to move, he forced himself to walk across the room to the fire. The girl's face was turned towards the softly flickering light. Half-expecting to feel empty air, he reached out and started when his fingers touched her arm. She was real. George swallowed once more and delicately touched her chest where her heart should be. Nothing. No movement. She was real and she was dead.
He backed away, hand to his mouth, then stumbled to the kitchen door. He took a last look at the girl then flung open the door and fled in sheer panic, totally heedless of noise, wanting nothing but to get out of that room and away from the body on the rug. He crashed up the steps and raced through the open iron gate onto the street.
A few feet away were the steps up to the front door of the house. The door was open, sending light streaming into the road. George had a brief glance of a woman framed in the doorway, talking to the solid figure of a policeman in a glistening cape, then he ran for it. The policeman turned.
"Here! You! Stop!"
George heard the blast of a police whistle as he ran down the empty street, the sound deadened under the rasp of his breath and the thumping of his heart. Feet pounded after him, then another policeman loomed up, arms outstretched to stop him. George tried to dodge, wriggling helplessly in the man's grasp but his arm was held fast. He tried to throw the man off but his strength deserted him. Another hand gripped his shoulder tightly. His legs gave way and he sank to the pavement.
A lantern was shone in his face and George twisted away from the blinding light.
"Now you come quietly, my lad," said the policeman holding the lantern. "No funny business."
The second policeman looked down at him. "What's he done?"
" I caught him legging out of number 19." A hand descended on him. "Breaking and entering, I'd say." George felt his shoulder being shaken. "Come on, you. Up you get."
George tried to get up but his legs were like cotton-wool. He reached up his hand for help and two puzzled faces looked down at him. Their faces swam in and out of focus. He tried to speak but the words came out as a little gulp of a cry.
The two policemen stepped back in alarm. "Strewth, I don't like the sound of that," said one. He reached down and hauled George to his feet. George leaned heavily against him and vainly tried to speak once more.
The policeman shook him. "Here, you! Stop that."
George buried his face in his hands and waited, gasping for breath. "You... you don't understand," he managed to say. "She's dead, I tell you, dead."
The two policemen exchanged looks. "I think he's off his rocker," said one quietly. "Who's dead?"
Panic welled up inside him once more. "The girl," he managed to say. "The girl in the kitchen!"
There were footsteps behind him and a woman approached. She looked at him curiously. "What's the problem, Officer?" she asked. Her voice was clear but gentle and George felt instantly soothed. He could explain things to her. She'd understand. He could tell her what had happened.
Still holding George, the policeman answered. "This is the man who broke in, Miss." He glanced at the other policeman. "This is the lady from number 19," he explained. "I was just telling her that her area gate was unlocked when this geezer shot out."
"He doesn't look like a criminal," said the girl doubtfully. "I mean, look how he's dressed. Are you sure it's the right man?"
"Perfectly sure, Miss. I caught him red-handed."
"I'm sorry," gasped George. "I'm so sorry. I saw the fire and there's… there's a dead girl. She's been murdered. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
The girl stepped back. "A murder? Where?"
"In the kitchen," George managed to say. Her face blurred in front of him and he held his hand to his eyes. "I'm sorry."
"In the kitchen?" said the girl sharply.
The policeman holding him coughed. "Don't you believe a word of it, Miss," adding, in a quieter voice. "I think he's a bit of a nutcase."
She looked at George sharply. "Perhaps." She bit her lip and looked at the policemen. "Look, would you mind coming into the kitchen with me? I don't know what this man's seen but there might be something."
"Just as you like, Miss," said the policeman with the lantern. "Come on, you," he said to George. "Come and show us what you saw."
"No!" George struggled weakly in the policeman's grasp. "I'm not going back. I'm not!" His voice was nearly a sob.
The policemen exchanged shrugs. "You'd better have a look," said the man holding George to the other policeman. George continued to struggle. "Keep still, will you! You stay here with me."
George subsided as the girl and the policeman went off, leaving him with his captor. They were back a few minutes later.
"There's nothing there," said the policeman. "Just as we thought." He gave the girl beside him a long-suffering glance. "And this lady says that as nothing was touched as far as she can see, she doesn't want to press charges. Let him go."
The policeman holding him released him and George staggered to the railings.
"He's ill," said the woman in sudden concern. "Look at him. He's ill." She reached out and touched George on the forehead. "Why, you're burning hot."
George blinked. She'd got it wrong. He wasn't hot, he was cold, deathly cold. Hadn't she seen the girl in the kitchen? She must have seen her. "Where is she?" he asked. "Where's she gone?"
"There's no-one there," she said. "You must have imagined it."
Imagined it? Could he have done? He gazed at her and tried hard to speak but the words got twisted round. It was gibberish, he knew it was, but he couldn't help it.
"He's really ill," said the woman.
Her voice came from very far away. George shut his eyes as the world split up into jerky, unrelated images. Then that intense cold seized him and dragged him off to a faraway Arctic of darkness.
Jack Haldean, two pints of bitter in hand, negotiated his way through the snug of The Heroes Of Waterloo to the table where his friend, Inspector William Rackham, sat waiting for him. Jack liked The Heroes. It was a cheerfully unpretentious pub, minutes round the corner from his rooms in Chandos Row, with a welcoming fire, a resident cat, an agreeable landlady and oak panels which, dividing the snug into cosy little booths, were stained dark by years of London soot and placidly smoked pipes.
"Here we are," he said, putting down the glasses. He took off his coat and hat, laid them on the oak settle and wedged himself in behind the table across from Rackham. Bill Rackham, a big, untidy man with vivid ginger hair, folded up his newspaper and picked up his beer. "Cheers, Jack." He took a long drink. "My word, I needed that."
"Is there anything wrong?" asked Jack, offering him his cigarette case.
"Not really. Should there be?"
Jack lit his cigarette. "Not especially. You just don't look too happy with life."
Rackham ran a hand through his hair. "It's nothing. Just work. My sister's been down from Manchester," he added after a pause.
"I know," said Jack patiently. "The three of us had dinner together, if you remember."
"What? Oh yes, we did, didn't we. Sorry. I saw her onto the train before I called for you. I was supposed to be having a few days off but that went up in smoke."
It was a few moments before Rackham, who was staring moodily at the ashtray, apparently in a world of his own, replied. "What? Oh, my sister, you mean. Yes, poor Sue. I had to more or less leave her to her own devices." The conversation died down again, then Rackham made an effort. "What have you been up to?"
"Nothing much. My cousin Isabelle's been up for a couple of days. We went to see Hurry Along! on Wednesday. You've seen it, haven't you?"
"Yes, I took Sue. Did you enjoy it?"
"Very much. Isabelle was a bit disappointed because Stephanie Granger's understudy was on, but I thought she was fine."
The conversation lapsed once more.
"She lugged me round the shops yesterday," added Jack when it became obvious Rackham wasn't tempted by a discussion of musical theatre. "You know she's getting married in the spring?" Rackham nodded abstractedly. "I think she must have bought half of Selfridges. I certainly seemed to be carrying half of Selfridges with most of Harrods thrown in by the end of the afternoon. Linen, you know, and so on." Jack picked up his beer. "She said she needed elephants so we bought three. I suggested a couple of walruses but she insisted on elephants."
Rackham gazed past him blankly before saying, after an appreciable pause, "Shopping, eh?"
Jack grinned. "I knew it! I knew you weren't listening. Look, stop pretending there's nothing biting you and tell me what's wrong. You look whacked out and worried to death."
Rackham half-smiled and put his hands behind his neck, stretching his shoulders. "All right. I'm sorry, I wasn't really listening. As I said, it's work."
"Anything interesting?" asked Jack with a lift of his eyebrows. He tapped Rackham's folded newspaper on the table in front of him. "I saw you had a naked man in the Thames. I read about it in this morning. Is he your pigeon?"
"The naked man? Yes, he's mine, so to speak, but that's not the problem. You asked if there was anything interesting. It depends what you call interesting." He picked up the paper and tossed it over to Jack. "See for yourself. That's the evening edition. Another dead girl turned up in the Thames this morning. She'd been strangled."
Jack unfolded the newspaper and read the headline out loud. "Jack The Ripper! The X man strikes again! " He looked at Rackham. "Not another Ripper murder, Bill?"
Rackham winced. "So the press says. Every time an unfortunate, as the Press delicately calls these women, gets murdered, the newspapers trot out Jack The Ripper."
"Well, hang on," said Jack. "Someone must be killing the poor girls and the comparison with Jack The Ripper is inevitable. I mean, the bloke must be a lunatic."
Rackham leaned back. "You think so? Don't get me wrong. I want to nail him as much as anyone, but we're stuck. Over the past eighteen months or so there's been five unfortunates, to use that word, murdered, whose killer we can't trace. We know it's the work of one man because he has the nasty little habit of leaving all his victims marked with a cross, which is why he's also called the X man. All the women come from different areas of London and it's a devil of a job to guess where he'll strike next. We can't guess. There doesn't seem to be any pattern in it. One had her throat cut, two were beaten up and two were strangled, including this latest woman, Bridget Flynn. We haven't had a single sighting that's of any use to us. We're being hounded by the press but murder's far too easy, Jack, when the killer picks his victims at random."
"And when the only motive is the desire to kill," added Jack quietly. "That's a nasty one. Don't the victims have anything in common?" he asked with a puzzled frown.
"Not a thing, apart from how they earned their money and the fact that they all end up in the river downstream of Blackfriars. Which," added Rackham reaching for another cigarette, "leaves a fair old bit of London to cover. Between the two of us, I can't see how we're ever going to catch him. It's not for want of trying I can tell you that."
"Five women," said Jack. He sat for a few moments in silence. "Didn't the original Ripper murder five women?"
"Yes, he did," agreed Rackham. "But there, more or less, the comparison ends. We had a visit from Inspector Sagar." Jack looked a question. "Sagar's a bit of legend in the force," said Rackham. "He played a leading part in the hunt for the original Ripper back in '88. It's a long time ago now, but he's well worth listening to. You see, Sagar's Ripper was obviously insane. If we don't know anything else about him, we do know that. As a matter of fact, Sagar's convinced that his Ripper was a lunatic who lived in Aldgate. He was put into an asylum and the killings stopped, but from 31st August to 9th November he attacked and mutilated five women. That's a very short space of time. Now our man has been operating for eighteen months." He took a long drink of beer. "Eighteen months, Jack. It was only when a bright boy from the Daily Despatch put two and two together about the victims being marked with a cross and screamed Ripper! and the rest of the press took it up, that we realised we had a series of murders on our hands. That was after the third killing."
"Eighteen months," repeated Jack. "It's a dickens of a time."
"I know," agreed Rackham. "It bothered Sagar, too."
"Could it be someone who's only in London every so often?" suggested Jack. "You know, a sailor or someone like that?"
Rackham shook his head. "We don't think so. According to the experts once this sort of homicidal mania gets hold of a man, it's like a drug. He can't stop and we'd expect a series of killings to follow him wherever he goes. There's nothing to suggest that. No. Sagar reckoned that our man - our very cautious man - isn't a lunatic at all."
"He must be," said Jack, startled.
Rackham shook his head. "Not in the accepted sense, no. This man knows exactly what he's doing."
Jack felt his throat tighten. "You mean he kills for pleasure? Like a treat?"
Rackham nodded. "You've got to find him, Bill."
"How?" demanded Rackham bitterly. "I tell you, this bloke's sane. He doesn't leave clues. After all, we never found Jack The Ripper and he was barmy. There's damn all to go on. If you only knew…" He stopped and looked ruefully at his friend. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bite your head off. It's just that everyone at the Yard wants this swine stopped and we haven't a clue how to go about it. That's the truth but it's hard to admit." He blew out a mouthful of smoke with an irritated sigh. "Forget it, Jack. It's not your sort of case."
Jack's mouth twisted. "No, thank God, it's not. If this bloke really is sane, then the only chance you've got is a lucky break and lots of police work." He looked at his friend. "No wonder you're looking so done-in."
Rackham stretched his shoulders once more. "It's been tough. And, of course, I've got my naked man in the Thames." He very nearly smiled. "At least they can't blame Jack The Ripper for that one. Not that's any help, particularly. So far we haven't been able to identify him. He had his face battered in very thoroughly. At first sight it looks like the work of a maniac, so what between a possibly insane killer and a probably sane Ripper, us poor beggars at Scotland Yard have got our work cut out. All we actually know is that his body was pulled out of the Thames at Southwark Bridge Steps at just gone nine yesterday morning. The doctor thinks he had been dead for about nine or ten hours at that stage, which gets us back to eleven o'clock or midnight at the absolute outside. He didn't want to commit himself any more definitely than that because of the action of the water retarding the progress of rigor and so on."
"Could his face have been bashed in be to conceal his identity?"
"Well, I thought of that, of course, but his hands are still intact. Mind you, we haven't got his fingerprints on record, so that doesn't help much. The odd thing about him is that the surgeon states that the beating he got wasn't the cause of death. What's even odder is that the surgeon - it's Doctor Harding, Jack, and you know he's good - can't say how he did die. Apparently he had some sort of heart problem so Harding's put it down as heart failure for the time being and that's as much as he can tell us."
"Heart failure?" questioned Jack.
Rackham nearly smiled again. "Technically he's correct, of course. I can't say I've come across many dead men whose hearts are still up and running. It's simply medical terminology. Harding knows as well as I do that heart failure doesn't strip a man naked and cave in his face."
"What about his teeth?" asked Jack. "Or were they too damaged to help you identify him?"
"He didn't have any teeth. Presumably he had a dental plate but that's gone. All we can really say is that he's middle-aged man, about five foot eleven and well-nourished, to use the usual formula. He'd eaten well before he died and was killed about eleven o'clock the night before last." Rackham picked up his beer. "Oh, forget about him, Jack. He's not your sort of case, either. I imagine what'll happen is that someone will eventually realise they haven't seen so-and-so for a time and tell us about it. We'll match up the description with our Mr X and that'll be it. It's a matter of simple policework."
"And once that happens you can start to look for whoever bumped him off. Which might not be so simple." Jack leaned back against the oak of the settle. "Haven't you had any other cases, Bill? Your bodies in the river aren't much fun."
"Ghoul," said Rackham with a grin. He stood up. "Let me get some more beer and I'll think about it."
When Rackham came back from the bar he looked more cheerful. "I've thought of something," he announced, sitting down. "It happened about three weeks or a month ago now and it isn't really a case at all, more of an incident, but it made me think of you. It sounded like one of your stories. I only got to hear of it because one of my sergeants was grumbling that no charges had been pressed."
"A man broke into the kitchen of a house in Mayfair. He didn't steal anything, apart from a plate of ham and cheese sandwiches, which is why the lady of the house didn't press charges. He was ill, poor beggar, and we ended up carting him off to the Royal Free. The odd thing about him was that he was wearing full evening dress."
"He sounds a very elegant tramp," said Jack. "So far, so good. That could be quite a nice point in a story. I suppose the poor devil was actually an out-of-work waiter or musician or something. I don't suppose he was remotely elegant in real life."
"As a matter of fact, he was, or had been, at least. According to Constable Newland, who nabbed him, the man's clothes were extremely good quality, if a bit worse for wear. Newland worked in a gents' outfitters before he joined the force and knows what he's talking about. They were tailor-made in…" He frowned. "Now where was it?"
"Savile Row?" suggested Jack.
"No. It wasn't in England at all. Cape Town, that was it. Cape Town. His name and the tailor's name were on the label of his tailcoat. Anyway, he came up the kitchen steps like a bat out of hell, more or less straight into the arms of Constable Newland. He tried to get away, Newland chased after him, blew his whistle, Constable Thirsk showed up and between them they got him. Anyway, he started gibbering away about a murder he'd seen." Rackham took a drink and laughed. "He said there was a dead body in the kitchen."
"And was there?" asked Jack, hopefully. "This is getting really good."
"Of course there wasn't. Sorry, Jack. He was making it up. The constables knew he was, but the lady of the house insisted that one of the policemen go and look, all the same. There was nothing there, as you'd expect. However, I thought that if there had been, it would make a cracking story."
"It might," said Jack. "I like the bit about him being in evening dress, I must say. The lady who owned the house couldn't know anything about it, otherwise she wouldn't have insisted on the police inspecting the kitchen." He ran his finger round the top of his glass. "Kitchens. Who'd leave a body in a kitchen? It's a rotten place. The servants would trip over it." He leaned back, his hand to his chin. "In fact, it's odd that the servants weren't there. What sort of body was it? A man or a woman?"
"There wasn't a body," said Rackham patiently. "That's the point."
"Yes, but he thought there was a body and by your account something must have scared him otherwise he wouldn't have done his bat out of hell impression. Hang on. Did you say he'd seen a murder? That'd scare him."
"He didn't see anything, I tell you."
"I wonder what he did see?"
"Crikey, Jack, I don't know," said Rackham with a short laugh. "Nothing but his own imagination, I should think. He wouldn't go back in the place to show them where his imaginary body was. He was frightened stiff."
"It must have been some vision. Was he drunk?"
"Apparently not. He was ill, though, as I say. Look, old man, if you're that interested why don't you go and ask him? He's still in the Royal Free as far as I know."
"I wonder if he'd appreciate a visitor?" Jack caught Rackham's expression and grinned. "I know, you think I'm wasting my time chasing after some poor bloke and his vivid imagination but he does sound a bit out of the ordinary, you must admit. After all, that's why you told me about him in the first place. What's his name?"
"I've been trying to remember. Rossiter? George Rossiter? No, that's not quite right. Lassiter, that's it. George Lassiter."
"George Lassiter?" Jack put down his beer and repeated the name sharply. "George Lassiter? From South Africa? Are you sure?"
"Fairly sure, yes. Why? You don't know him, do you?"
"I certainly knew a George Lassiter and he was a South African. He was in my squadron. He was a first-rate pilot and a thoroughly good sort. He got shot down a few months before the end of the war and was taken prisoner. I don't know what happened to him after that. I haven't seen him for years. I wonder if it really is the same bloke? He was a big man with sandy hair."
"I don't know what he looks like," said Rackham, " and to be honest I don't know if he's actually a South African, but his clothes were certainly made in Cape Town so it seems likely enough."
Jack looked at his watch. "I don't know what the visiting hours at the Royal Free are but I imagine I've missed them for today. Damn!"
"Don't worry about that," said Rackham. "Let me finish my beer and I'll come to the hospital with you. Even if they won't let you see the man himself, you can talk to the doctor or the matron or whatever about him. But remember, Jack, the man was apparently destitute. If you show too much of an interest you might end up with being lumbered with him."
Jack shrugged. "I suppose I might but it wouldn't be for long. He was a very independent character. And after all, he's an old friend, or he could be. It sounds as if he needs one." He stopped, frowning. "What the devil made him do it? As I remember George, he was painfully honest. He must have been desperate. I'll tell you something else, too. He's the last person to suffer from an over-active imagination. He was a very prosaic sort of bloke. What the devil was he doing breaking into kitchens in Mayfair and seeing visionary corpses?"
Rackham drained his glass and stood up. "Let's go and find out, shall we?"
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