A post World War II mystery about American servicemen in Great Britain and the suspicious death of a local girl.
Read the story now or in the Summer 2019 issue at mystericale.com
By Cecily Winter
Chuck pushed open the door whose glass was marked ‘Snug’—the section of the pub set aside for ladies and quiet conversation. It wasn’t quiet. He hunched over his table, half aware of Elvis crooning on the jukebox, half eavesdropping on the knot of wan-faced girls who’d arrived in a gale of wind and laughter. At the top of their lungs, they assessed the talent in the men’s bar, where—and this was intended for him—the real blokes hung out. He crouched lower over his glass of bitter and thought about supper. Fish and chips, chicken curry?
Rationing was over, though you wouldn’t notice from the quantity and quality of the food. For his hotel breakfast that morning, one fried egg, fried bread, two rashers of the floppy pig-meat they called bacon, and tea to drown in. But later, with the sun playing tag in the cumulus, he’d driven ‘round the fence surrounding the abandoned U.S. airbase. During his service, he’d never flown out of Britain, only policed the base. Trouble a-plenty, with theft and the dances always reaching a high boil, where the English sparrows—or as chirpy as—came to dance with stocking seams drawn down the back of their legs. A brawl and they screamed for their favorite to thump the living daylights out of the other guy.
He smiled, but he wasn’t paid to pander to nostalgia, if it was nostalgia. His job was throwing his two-cents into a murder investigation to see what card he drew. The victim Ruby Perkins he’d maybe danced with cheek to cheek, maybe even had under the pier in the damp sand if she’d been a bold one.
Then, 20 years ago, someone killed her and buried her deep in the town’s common, the land recently sold to developers, and her corpse newly come to light. The skeleton was identifiable on account of a cheap engagement ring and a five-month fetus under her ribs; Ruby had run at full steam into a streak of bad luck. And he’d been hired to take the heat off the guy who’d given her that ring once upon a wartime.
Back then Wilmer Atkinson had been a hick no better or worse than any U.S. recruit on base but now a mover and shaker sizing up a seat in Congress. He was a regular at the Nevada casino where Chuck was Head Detective and rubbed elbows with the rich, and, better yet, with their small-waisted women in evening gowns who drew their nicotine through onyx cigarette holders and their alcohol from five-dollar martini glasses. Funny, the higher up the ladder those women crawled, the lower and huskier their voices. And Chuck would’ve swum the Truckee River to impress a husky voice.
Wilmer swore on his mother’s grave that Ruby never mentioned her pregnancy and, in fact, had moved on to greener pastures months before she disappeared. By greener pastures, Wilmer meant a rich boyfriend though he mentioned no name. Chuck’s job was to prove Wilmer innocent.
Or, if it came to trial, to the point of reasonable doubt.
The locals he’d questioned—the few with phones—recalled, with the clarity of folk who didn’t have a lot to remember, Ruby’s upbeat mood when they last talked, whether at work—she was a welder—or in her digs or the local pub. It wasn’t looking good for hick Wilmer, a rabid skirt-hound. Chuck had known him by sight and reputation and recognized him straight off when he’d waltzed into the casino with a classy broad on each arm.
It was time to tackle face-to-face interviews. First one at 6:30, “after tea,” Ruby’s former landlady had said. He drained his glass and contemplated the wisdom of another half-pint.
Didn’t matter; he couldn’t place an order because the three girls crowded the tiny bar, all singing Elvis back-up. The elder, with a scarf wrapped turban-style around her head, broke off and yelled at a guy propping himself up, across the way, on the men’s bar, “You lonesome tonight Ricky Davies?”
“Not so’s you’d notice,” he said. “But you can follow your dream over to my lodgings if it suits you.”
“All of us?” she asked huskily.
Her friends crooned a chorus of “Why not take all of us?”
Seemed flirtation and sass passed for riotous entertainment since the Yanks hoofed it.
Except, a flat-capped geezer across the bar pointed a crooked finger at the women and said, “Slope off home, you trollops. I know your game. We all do.”
“Hearken,” Turban-head said. “That’s why you’re old before your time. We hear those trollops gave out a bit more than you paid for.”
“Keep a civil tongue in you,” he growled.
She aimed a beermat and flung. “Oops!”
It corner-slammed his cheek and drew a barrage of full-on cursing.
Turban-head laughed. “Don’t bust your braces, you daft sod. It’s only cardboard.”
The barmaid hefting a tray of beer mugs from her shoulder to the snug bar said, “Sit down before I throw you down, Madge. And the rest of you lot.”
Drinks in hand, they retired from the bar and clustered around a dimly-lit booth. Chuck asked for another half of bitter. When he returned to his table, his chair was gone.
“Ladies, my chair?”
“Sit with us,” Madge said, shuffling along the banquette. “Anyone who calls us ‘ladies’ needs to learn proper English before he’s clobbered by a jumped-up teddy boy.”
Chuck grinned and squeezed between Madge and a girl with no wedding band and a hard-favored profile. They or their mothers must’ve been acquainted with Ruby. It was her neighborhood. “Thanks, ladies. I’ve been hoping for the chance to shoot the breeze.”
“What’s your name?” the girl beside him asked, full-on.
Cheeks like axe blades but eyes of pale sea-green and a smile ineffable.
“Chuck,” he said, “Chuck to my friends. Let me get the next round.”
A trio of “vodka-and-lime thanks” hit his ears, a spontaneous upgrade from their halves of mild, but why not? Wilmer allowed him an expense account. He squeezed from his spot, not unhappy to brush against Ineffable-smile’s comfortable thigh. He placed the order at the bar and turned to face them. “So, what’re your names?”
Ineffable-smile said, “I’m Charlotte.” She pointed to the others as she recited their names: “That’s Madge, old enough to be our mother; and Jayne, only she was Christened Joan so take your pick.
“Oy, pick me,” she squealed.
With a shrug, Charlotte said, “Quiet, you mad hen. Chuckchuck’s a Rhode Island rooster and only kisses the pretty-please hens.”
He was about to protest he was a Nevadan, but she’d risen to her feet and eyed her audience. As if they dared her, she took off, flapping her elbows as she strutted and clucked. A hurricane of gaiety swept them to their feet, and they strutted and cackled, laughing and half-choking on it as they cock-a-doodled his cheeks hot as hell. He recalled how, in the war, the girls knew how to make fun out of nothing much. It was probably a national trait, more so than the stiff-upper-lip malarkey.
When energy drained off and seats were reclaimed, Chuck tossed an open cigarette pack on the table and enjoyed the sight of their eager hands selecting from the array of Lucky Strikes.
“Tell me,” said Jayne, from Chuck’s former chair, her legs crossed and her cleavage on display as she leaned forward, interviewer-like, with her empty-glass microphone, “what brings a world traveler like you to one of the finest illuminations-capitals of Great Britain?”
No illuminations during the war that he recalled. He dragged deeply on his cigarette. If he brought up the dead girl, the party was over. Then again, the party needed to be over; he had an interview scheduled. “I’m investigating the suspicious death of a local girl, Ruby Perkins.”
Charlotte said, “The slag dug up in the common?”
Chuck flinched like she’d slapped him.
Maybe she caught the flash of shock crossing his face because she said, “That’s what they say. Even the papers. I feel sorry for her. Twenty years now, isn’t it? And no one knew where she was. She could have been in America sun-bathing by a swimming pool and driving a fancy car.”
“Not together, in my humble opinion,” Jayne said.
Madge said, “But all these years she was dead and rotting with that little mite in her belly. I knew her, you know.”
The others jeered.
“God’s truth, I did,” Madge said. “She was a welder in the factory where I worked; I was only there a few months, a packer. She told me about the room to let at her digs, and I lived there, too, until she cleared out.”
“She left?” Chuck asked.
“That’s what our landlady said. Flitted without a word in the night, leaving most of her bits-and-bobs behind.”
“I’m seeing Mrs. Fish later. Any chance you’ll show me the street?”
He’d mapped his course already, but getting Madge to talk would sure speed up the investigation.
“If you’ve a car, I can.”
Madge said, “Come on then.”
He was unsure about tipping the barmaid, so he didn’t. Neither did he help Madge struggle into her long, black wool coat with epaulets and an inside-out sleeve. He’d known them all of half an hour and couldn’t handle one more round of communal sass.
He’d been considering the possibility of dating Charlotte later; she didn’t wear a ring so he assumed she was single. He’d already pictured her naked in his cold-sheeted hotel bed, with the mood music of the shilling-guzzling, shushing gas heater, and her rose-petal skin under his fingers and those lips that glanced off the angels imparting, maybe, an iota or two of grace. But tomorrow was another day.
“Alright, Chuckchuck,” Marge said. “Let’s be having you.”
Even their everyday phrases were innuendo.
The others’ giggling eruption over his foot size, hurried him into the blowing sea wind, the sun about drowned on the horizon. Madge clung to his arm, her coat flapping against his shins. She was tall even in flats, and she pulled off her headscarf and pocketed it.
“That’s better,” she said, shaking her head to let loose a mass of auburn curls.
A looker. Chuck would have put the moves on her in the day.
“The rental’s at my hotel,” he said, guiding her along the promenade that held back the Atlantic swells and housed the ornate lampposts strung with lines of colored light bulbs, dull and tawdry in the dusk. “There used to be gulls,” he said.
“Easier picking down the docks this time of day,” she said. “Fishing boats coming in and unloading.”
The world had faded to a uniform grayness, so he was momentarily blinded when all the bulbs overhead flashed on to light the boardwalk and the pier that marked the intersection for his hotel. A star on the pier pavilion pulsed with hostile brilliance, and the elongated ghosts of lampposts, kiosks, benches, and railings hurled themselves across the dim sand.
At the pier, he said, “Wait here, I’ll pick you up in two ticks.”
She leaned on the railing, her stilt legs lifting her rear end, and cupped her hand around a match to light a cigarette. He tasted the phosphorus on his own lips and tongue.
They drove her to her former lodging house.
“Mrs. F., our landlady,” Madge confided, “was never married but no one mentioned it twice, what with her two boys in grammar school when grammar school meant something and both of them doctors in London. She doesn’t take in lodgers nowadays.”
At the open door, Mrs. Fish hugged Madge, and Madge apologized for not coming ‘round for ages, but Mrs. F. fluttered her hands and told her Madge’s family came first. The old woman had a wide, sleepy face under a judge-wig hairdo of tight-white curls. She insisted on making a pot of tea while Chuck warmed his legs beside her coal fire. He enjoyed the localized heat and odor of real fires, the spark, fury, and luxury of them. Not so much the monotonous tick of the clock—small and gold-leafed.
With their teacups milked, filled, and sugared, Chuck said, “You know why I’m here, and I thank you for seeing me. He’d decided to keep his relationship with Wilmer casual. He went on, “My friend could be charged any day with Ruby’s manslaughter”—though he knew the British cops favored murder—”and I’m helping prove his innocence. People I’ve talked to say Ruby seemed pretty happy in her job and life in general before she disappeared.”
“Oh, she was.” Mrs. F. leaned closer. “Knocked up, of course, but I hadn’t the heart to chuck her out. I mentioned adoption, but she was adamant her young man meant to marry her.”
“She mentioned his name, the baby’s father, I mean?”
“Can’t recall it if she did, but I kept a few photos of my lodgers over the years.” She gestured to a roll-top bureau. “Top drawer, Madge.”
Madge skipped across the room, barely the size of Chuck’s home bathroom, and returned with a fake-leather album in her hands. Propped up by crewel-worked cushions and a long-stemmed lens at one eye, Mrs. F. gazed fondly at an open page.
Chuck hoped to God he didn’t have to sit through the album’s history. “Which one’s Ruby?” he asked.
Mrs. F. flipped pages and shook her head. “I wonder if someone took it? The nice policeman couldn’t find it when he looked.”
Madge said, “What Chuckchuck needs is to look through the album to see if his friend’s in there.”
Madge carried the album to him, along with the magnifying glass. He sighed as he leafed through the pages—dozens of tiny pictures that even squinting through the lens didn’t quite bring into focus. Then, slipping from the backside of a sizeable wedding photo came a four-inch square with deckled white edges. He held the photo six inches from his face and scrutinized it.
He recognized pixie-faced Ruby from the papers, but, here, obviously pregnant. She slouched beside a guy in civvies, wide cuffed pants, rolled-up shirtsleeves, open collar. Hair color indeterminate and broad eyebrows. Chuck didn’t think it was Wilmer.
He delivered the snapshot and lens to Mrs. F. “Any chance I can keep this until I can make a copy?” he asked.
“I’m sure it’s no use to anyone else. Keep it,” she said, taking it from him. “I do remember it was Ruby’s young man’s Brownie.”
“And you don’t recall his name?”
She cocked her head. “William, was it?”
That British habit of wrecking facts with a question mark had made him want to tear out his hair a million times but never more than this time. Maybe it meant Wilmer was in the clear, he’d never had two cents to his name back then. But the base was a hotbed of black-market deals. “Do you recognize the guy?”
She frowned through her magnifier. “It could be a chap from the base who took out another one of my lodgers, a nurse.”
Chuck had nowhere else to go, so swerved left. “Madge mentioned Ruby left personal things behind. Did you keep anything?”
“All of it, in case she came back after she had the baby. I expected her to come back, even though I never heard a word from her.”
Madge said, “She would’ve been in touch if she could. You know that.”
“Well, her trunk’s in the attic. Will you want to see it? The police didn’t seem impressed. I can have my lads bring it down next time they visit.”
“What if I go up and take a look?” Chuck asked.
She paused before glancing at the clock. “It’s getting on.”
Chuck glanced at it—1930 hours. Barely supper time. “I can come back tomorrow morning—say, ten—and bring a flashlight?”
“As you like,” she said. “It’ll be dusty, so don’t wear that nice suit. I only hope they catch poor Ruby’s murderer and hang him high like they say in the westerns.”
“So they do, Mrs. F. I’m sorry for the inconvenience—”
“No, no. It’s right to try to help a friend. I thought I was helping Ruby, but look how that turned out.”
“Don’t blame yourself,” Madge scolded before she enfolded Mrs. F.’s tidy curls in a close hug.
Chuck basked in the second-hand warmth of the affection, and the old-lady scent of soap and Madge’s wholesome yeastiness from the factory-bakery where she and the other girls worked.
On the drive home, Madge toyed with her hair until he parked in front of her house—fancier than he’d expected with art-deco windows and double-high doors.
She said, “The suspect isn’t your friend like you told Mrs. F., though, is he? He hired you to investigate. Don’t piss on Ruby’s memory by hiding evidence. I’ve a mind to get the police back in—”
“Why? They’ve seen what we’ll see, and I’m pretty sure the guy in the photo isn’t Wilmer. If I find anything that points to him or anyone else, I swear I’ll let you know first.”
“But he could’ve taken the photo, couldn’t he?” she said.
Chuck nodded wearily. “Yeah, I’ll ask him. I swear. I’m a straight shooter.”
“I believe you, Chuck, though millions wouldn’t. Don’t piss on me neither or you’ll rue the day.”
An hour later, a vigorous knocking roused Chuck from a dream of Charlotte, with all the physical and psychic difficulty that entailed in opening his door to a chambermaid and then having to waddle down the hallway to take the phone call.
“Pick me up tomorrow morning,” Madge said.
“Don’t you have work?”
“Ruby’s my work.”
“Fine. Say 8:30.”
Mrs. F.’s description of Ruby’s trunk clear in his mind, Chuck mounted the rickety wooden step stool and hauled himself into the attic—more a crawlspace. He pulled Madge up after him. She’d worn pants. Not many women willingly went back to their war wardrobe or still fit it.
He flicked on his flashlight and crawled through the disturbed dust to the storage spot. There it was, dust-free from police handling but topped by several cardboard cartons containing, going by the tinkling, the family Christmas ornaments.
Madge asked, “Shall I do the honors?” She didn’t wait for an answer.
The trunk’s latch raised and the lid lifted, Chuck shone his light on the relics of Ruby Perkins. As if the objects were sacred, Madge lifted out each item and laid it gently in the dust for the inventory.
Three miniature shepherdess-and-lamb figurines. A hairbrush and comb set with tarnished silver-plated handles. An empty coin-purse. A navy-blue fountain pen, which Madge didn’t set aside.
“This is a prize she won for coming top of her class once.”
“I bet she wouldn’t mind if you took it.”
“You don’t think it’s evidence?”
“If it was, it’d be in evidence storage.” The local detective had told Chuck the case was solved as far as he was concerned, even if it did hinge on circumstantial evidence. “The cops have got all they need to prosecute,” he added. “I’m here for evidence of exoneration.” He continued unpacking the trunk.
Madge sighed. “I’ll take it, then, as a memento.”
“I won’t tell,” he said, pawing through the clothes he’d unloaded.
Ruby’s silky and cotton undies, cardigans, sweaters, nighties, and the like. The dress she wore for the photo—her neat stitching of the additional maternity panels was visible close up. Underneath, flat shoes and heels wrapped in sacking.
Madge held the dress to her face and sniffed it. “It’s a strong scent. Familiar.”
He leaned forward to sniff, and it wasn’t woman scent. Smoke and engine oil. Wilmer had been a mechanic, but Ruby worked as a welder, and no one in Britain but boarding-school kids took daily showers. Another ambiguity, but ambiguity sat in Wilmer’s corner.
Madge peered into the trunk and said, “She was a fool for books.”
Books there were, and Madge flipped through the top one.
“Check the pages for anything that might help, Madge.”
He piled the dog-eared novels with lurid jackets into her arms, and she withdrew to the single window for a glimmer of street light. Something formed a shallow ledge under the newspaper lining. Chuck picked at the paper, brittle and yellowed with age until it crumbled over a blue book, a kid’s exam booklet.
Eureka. One way or the other. But he didn’t let on to Madge, only slipped it into his back pocket it and re-packed the trunk. “Anything?” he asked, squatted on his heels.
“A lot of underlined pages, don’t know why. You think it’s code?”
“Not unless she worked as a code-breaker during the war.”
“She was a metal-worker.”
“You said. Anything else?”
“A snapshot. She’s not pregnant yet. It’s the dance hall, and the bloke looks really familiar. Like I just saw him yesterday.” She flung the photo at him. The corner of the 6×6 narrowly missed his cheek.
He picked it up. Crap. His exhalation stirred a dangling thread of webbing into motion. “That’s me,” he said, “but I don’t remember being together.”
“Must’ve been an occasion for someone to take your picture.”
“No decorations, so not Christmas.” He stared at Ruby’s face ghostly in flashlight and willed his brain to remember. Maybe the notebook would jolt details out of cold storage. He’d heard of veterans burying trauma under the rubble of time, but he hadn’t dated her—or not more than once. He had nothing to bury.
“Let me buy you lunch,” he said. “I could use a pint.”
“You’re leaving the photo?” she asked.
“No point,” he said, jamming it in his back pocket with the other and the exam-booklet, and pulled his sweater down. “I know for a fact I didn’t hurt anyone.”
She re-packed the trunk in silence while he watched. She crawled for the trapdoor, and he followed. His heart thudded fierce enough to break his ribs.
He’d been too chicken to look up Charlotte for a date then have to chat about Ruby, so he quit town without any goodbyes. On the plane amid silver-streaked clouds, he opened the booklet. Ruby’s poetry was written in careful italics. The uneasy rhymes and sugary sentiment struck him as mawkish, childish, but she’d been barely 20 when she died, a girl with no hope of adventure but a romance with a guy riding a white horse or military transport. Every poem was dedicated Wil, the three ambiguous letters embellished by colored-in hearts. Wilmer Atkinson or Mrs. F.’s William. In either case, not Chuck.
The plane picked up velocity and height, and clouds bowled by his window. He wished he’d never given up flying. Maybe it wasn’t too late to get a commercial license or train as an airline pilot, complete with a Charlotte at every stopover.
He leaned back, tranquil in having to be nowhere else any time, and the occasion of the snapshot of him with Ruby floated into his mind’s eye. They’d won a jive competition. And after Wilmer took the picture, she’d leapt into his arms. He’d been out of uniform and dressed in wide-legged cuffed pants and white shirt, his eyebrows broad and distinctive. Since then, he’d aged well and thinned his eyebrows, but no question he’d known Ruby was pregnant.
Chuck had promised to tell Madge first if he found proof of Wilmer’s involvement in Ruby’s death—if an exposed lie constituted the whole truth. But, if he never spoke of it, she couldn’t claim he’d pissed on her.
If he deplaned in Ireland and got lost for a while, he’d never be called to testify at Wilmer’s trial, but he’d be pissing long and hard on Ruby’s memory.
He had about an hour to decide.