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London, April 1926
"I do all my thinking in the car nowadays. And why? Because, whatever I do or say, I can't get away from blasted Audrey!"
A flash of resentment expressed itself in a sharp stab on the accelerator, and the red Chrysler two-seater swept smoothly onwards over the Hog's Back and on to London.
"Eight years ago she was innocent, pliable, uninventive but co-operative. And now? Sycophantic, eager to please but having no longer the power of pleasing. She'll have to go! And this time I shan't relent no matter how many damp handkerchiefs she waves before my face. She's completely suffocating me. I should have left her where I found her–second from the right in the chorus of Florodora.
"It was a good idea, throwing my luggage in the back and just leaving. I certainly needed to get away, to get away to London . . . to get away from cosy domesticity in the country to the supple hospitality extended by the Ritz. 'Your usual suite?' I like that! I like the purring familiar voice, confidential and knowing, so calming in all this storm and stress. But now–what to look forward to? A dreary evening. Cousin Alfred's fiftieth birthday party. A roomful of people I hardly know. A roomful of dull nieces and nephews. But–you never know your luck! That little girl who's just got herself engaged to the appalling Monty–she might be quite promising. Might be distinctly promising! I can remember everything about her except her name. Jennifer? Jasmine? Sure it began with a J . . . Joanna! Got it! Black hair in a fashionable bob, slender figure. Slanting green eyes. Naughty and knowing green eyes, perhaps? I'm sure I encountered a look of complicity when we met. And any girl cultivated by that louche lounge lizard Montagu Mathurin is bound to have reached a certain level of initiation into the ways of the world. An initiation acquired in an upper room at the Cafe Royal, perhaps. What can she see in him? Much too good for him–she's bound to have realized by now. It mightn't be such a bad evening after all!"
Detective Sergeant William Armitage's handsome features contorted briefly in an attempt to stifle a sigh, or was it a yawn? Overtime was always tedious but really, he felt–and resented the feeling–that he was out of place here. He'd rather have been on duty at the dog track. Better still, he could have taken the day off and gone to Wembley for the Cup Final. A northern Derby but worth watching all the same. Still, you had to take what you could get these days. They were cutting down on overtime next week and the old man desperately needed that cataract operation. That didn't come free. Austerity. They were living in times of austerity, they'd been told. The force, just like everyone else, had to tighten its belt. Cut down on unnecessary expenses.
"Huh! Try explaining austerity to some of this lot."
He ran his eye with disfavour amounting to hatred over the birthday guests assembled in the private dining room of the Ritz. The end of the seemingly interminable speeches had come at last. The old geezer in whose honour they were celebrating fifty years of parasitic idleness risked running into his sixtieth year before his friends and relations had finished queuing up to listen to their own voices telling family jokes and relating embarrassing incidents in the fruitless life of Alfred Joliffe. But now the last cheery lie had been told and welcomed by the receptive audience and they were all knocking back the champagne. And this followed the sherry, the white wine and the red wine with the meal. Eyes were sparkling, laughter louder and shriller, behaviour more exaggerated. It all made his surveillance difficult. It had been a piece of cake while they were all seated at those little tables but now they were wandering about, going to the cloakrooms, stepping outside for a cigar, dancing in the small circle the Ritz flunkeys had cleared in front of the eight-piece band. Armitage wondered if young Robert, stationed outside in the corridor by the lift, had stayed alert.
His eye ranged over the men, about thirty of them in the group, eliminating the elderly, the unfit, the inebriated. That left two–no–three whose movements he should follow closely. Waste of time. None of them looked remotely like a cat burglar. Still, what did a cat burglar look like? Nobody knew. Bloody clever, those lads–never got caught. Briefing him, his inspector had explained that, in the series of break-ins and robberies that had occurred in London hotels in the last few months, the Ritz could well be the next target. Bedrooms had been entered sometimes by means of the fire escape and turned over, while the guests were busy at some sort of knees-up in the building. You could almost think somebody had checked they were occupied elsewhere and then ransacked their rooms but that was to imply that the burglar was one of their number, someone close who knew them and who could watch their movements unobserved. A member of their class. Obvious really. And Armitage had tried to put this idea into his boss's head. But, of course, no one in any position of authority was willing to believe this. Even the victims wouldn't admit the thought. Thieves were lower class, weren't they? Destitutes and relics of the war. ". . . terribly sad, darling, and naturally one understands and sympathizes, but it just has to be stamped out and quickly before one becomes the next insurance claimant."
There had been one sighting, but so far only one. A guest at Claridge's last month, returning unexpectedly to her room, had found a man standing inside. He was wearing evening dress and was very well spoken. A gentleman, she had said. Charming and attractive. He had apologized for mistaking the room, explaining that his own was on the floor below, and had left offering to buy her a drink in the bar to make up for the intrusion. It was some time before she realized that a hundred pounds was missing from her bag.
"And good luck to you, my lad!" thought Armitage mutinously. He was perfectly aware of a fellow feeling for anyone who had the nerve and the skill to pluck a living from these fat birds and yet he knew that if the occasion offered and he found himself feeling the collar of one of the light-fingered sportsmen he had been assigned to track down he would stifle his sympathy, bounce him off down to the clink and take all the credit that was going. "Felix! Felix, the Cat Burglar! Are you here now? Mingling with the crowd, unremarkable behind a fashionably languid voice and the right evening suit? Stalking your victim and preparing to nip off upstairs and do out a room? Waste of time, mate! I could tell you that. The jewel cases are lying open and empty on the dressing tables. It's all down here . . . must be ten thousand quid's worth of sparklers hanging round the undeserving necks of these toffee-nosed tabbies."
He looked again at the three young men who had caught his attention earlier. They were deep in serious conversation at the other end of the room. They were still sober, they were lithe and looked keen and clever. Were they up to something? It was just possible . . . He didn't want any amateurs fouling up his evening. Better be certain. He strolled around the perimeter of the room and edged within earshot of their table. So oblivious of his presence were they, their earnest debate continued without hesitation: a debate on the new backless, double-breasted waistcoats–could one possibly wear these things? Snooty Felbrigg had been seen in one . . . but on the other hand, Fruity Featherstonehaugh had been heard to declare them "flashy." Armitage was interested enough to linger close by until they delivered their decision–a decided thumbs down.
"Where are you, Felix?" he wondered. "Not at this table, I think."
He moved around towards the door, staying on the fringes of the party, confident that the official Ritz security staff uniform he had put on for the occasion would render him invisible. If they noticed him at all, the toffs would be mildly reassured by his presence. But the guests were paying him no more attention than they paid the waiter who served them their consommé en gelée. Apart, that is, from two young girls who had been eyeing him for some minutes now, giggling to each other behind their hands. Both were a little the worse for drink. Drink? The worse for something anyway.
The sergeant gave them his reproving police stare, which usually did the trick. He knew that he was a good-looking man and he came in for his share of female appreciation. It wasn't always unwelcome but he wanted no attention from this pair. Underdressed, in his opinion, for a family do–those wisps of dresses were a plain incitement to crime–and their eyes were too bright. They'd spent quite a long time out of the room–in the ladies' cloakroom perhaps?–and Armitage's suspicious mind conjured up activities more often associated with nightclubs. Not Ciro's, he thought–the Embassy, more like. They said you could get anything at the Embassy. People of this class spent more on an evening's shot of cocaine than he spent on his week's rent. His stare grew more deadly.
The girls walked flirtily in front of him, turned and walked back again, passing more closely. The small evening bag one had been carrying suddenly slipped and fell at his feet. Automatically he bent and picked it up. Clicking his heels smartly, he held it out. "Excusez-moi, mademoiselle, vous avez laisse tomber ce petit sac."
Disconcerted, the girl took it from him. "Ooh, er, thank you," she mumbled.
"De rien, mademoiselle. De rien."
Wide-eyed and giggling, the girls scurried back to the flock.
He smiled with satisfaction. It never failed. He could always put people on the wrong footing by addressing them in French or German. The English would run a mile rather than deal face-to-face with a foreigner. He decided that if anyone else approached him he would give them a burst of Russian. He continued to survey the crowd. The three waistcoat fanciers were still at it and presenting no problems. No, if there was to be any suggestion of disorder arising from this group it was more likely to come from the women.
His eye followed the striking redhead he'd marked down earlier. She stood out from the crowd of flappers and gigglers, distinguished by her height–she towered over most of the men–and by her colouring. Her dark red hair was unfashionably long and piled on top of her head. This had the effect of lengthening further her elegant neck, her elegant neck around which hung a very remarkable necklace. Armitage had lost no time in giving it his professional attention. Emeralds, he judged, and the real goods. A family piece, he guessed, recently and fashionably reset. The stones were large, carried in a simple but heavy gold setting. She had chosen to emphasize their colour by wearing a low-cut gown of dark green taffeta which framed them as they lay gleaming against her smooth white throat.
He indulged for a moment or two in salacious thought. He acknowledged that she was, by his standards, quite old–perhaps even forty–but, given a chance to lay aboard, he wouldn't have refused. He didn't think many men would have refused. He watched on as she made her way towards the group of three who had become the focus of his surveillance. Well, at least it simplified things to have all his targets in one shot for a while. He approached the group softly, intrigued to hear their conversation. The woman laughed and flirted and sipped her cocktail prettily. The men vied to exceed each other in gallantry, obviously flattered by her attention. She twirled the stem of her glass and, when one of them noticed it was empty and called to a passing waiter, she asked for "Another French Rose. And no sugar round the rim!" He had not been keeping count but he was aware that she was drinking steadily, though you would never have guessed it from her speech or her behaviour. Yes, she could manage her drink, that one.
Now she was moving on to join that rancid toad Sir Montagu Mathurin at his table. There were stories circulating about him that made the sergeant's flesh crawl and for a split second he was tempted to approach and warn her to move on. But then he pulled himself up. What was he thinking of? The chap was probably her second cousin or something and, anyway, this lady was capable of looking after herself. She greeted Mathurin's rather sulky-looking little girlfriend (fiancee, rather, judging by the ring which was visible clear across the room) with much warmth but at once turned the full glow of her charm on the rogue Mathurin. This was decidedly a display of a sexual nature, Armitage reckoned, frowning anxiously as he watched the apparently casual but practised gesture with which she leaned towards him and adjusted his tie. Anybody could see what that meant! Even across the room the sergeant felt the force of it and he swallowed in sympathy. Certainly Mathurin was responding in a predictable way. It was a relief to see that after a few minutes of fascinating Mathurin she had the good manners to draw the fiancee into the conversation. Trouble averted then. The last thing he wanted was the distraction of a pedigree cat fight but all claws seemed to be sheathed. And this was the Ritz after all, not the London Apprentice. And these were ladies, not dockers' molls.
A clock chimed midnight and this was greeted with raucous calls for more champagne. The redhead rose to her feet and began to thread her way through the crowd towards the door. She paused, turned and directed a look at someone on the other side of the room. Damn! Armitage looked round but he wasn't quick enough to catch an answering look of complicity from any of the other revellers and wondered cynically which of the assembled men was the chosen one. He wished he had a mate in earshot to take on a bet with him. Whichever bloke rose to his feet and excused himself within the next five minutes, he reckoned was the lucky one. A matronly lady in wine-red brocade staggered to her feet and made her way, listing heavily, towards the door. A pretty girl in a short dress about as concealing as a cobweb noticed her predicament and with a cry of concern hurried after her, steadying her with a hand under an elbow and an encouraging smile. At a look from the maitre d'hôtel, a waitress scurried after the pair to check there were no embarrassing scenes in the corridor. A group of chirruping girls followed, flighting their way like finches to the powder room, and Armitage wondered what instinct compelled them to undertake this journey across the room in flocks. Mathurin, deserted for the moment by his fiancée, looked at his watch in anxiety–or was it just boredom? But he stayed in his place. And that was the only excitement. After ten minutes Armitage decided with a sigh of relief that he'd misinterpreted the signals.
At exactly twelve fifteen he was given the nod by the maitre d'hôtel, and he embarked on the next stage of his surveillance. He was being cleared, as arranged, to make a tour of inspection of the exterior of the hotel. Action at last. A real job to do. His muscles began to tense in anticipation. It would be good to escape from this overheated room and overloud laughter to clear his lungs in the sharp London air. But he only had the designated half-hour. He slipped away and, having given a brief nod to young Robert by the lift, he hurried to pick up his bag of equipment from the staff cloakroom. On a wet dark night like this he needed his police-issue flashlight and some protection for his uniform. He couldn't come dripping back into the party room without raising a few eyebrows even amongst this paralytic mob.
Alert and purposeful once more, Armitage stepped out into the chilly April night.