Authors: Peter; Peter Lovesey Lovesey
A CASE OF SPIRITES
By the same author
WOBBLE TO DEATH
THE DETECTIVE WORE SILK DRAWERS
MAD HATTER’S HOLIDAY
THE TICK OF DEATH
A CASE OF SPIRITS
SWING, SWING TOGETHER
WAXWORK THE FALSE INSPECTOR DEW
BERTIE AND THE TINMAN
ON THE EDGE
BERTIE AND THE SEVEN BODIES
BERTIE AND THE CRIME OF PASSION
THE LAST DETECTIVE
UPON A DARK KNIGHT
THE HOUSE SITTER
THE SECRET HANGMAN
BUTCHERS AND OTHER STORIES OF CRIME
THE CRIME OF MISS OYSTER BROWN AND OTHER STORIES
DO NOT EXCEED THE STATED DOSE
THE SEDGEMOOR STRANGLER AND OTHER STORIES OF CRIME
A CASE OF SPIRITES
A SERGEANT CRIBB INVESTIGATION
Copyright © 1975 by Peter Lovesey.
All rights reserved.
First published in Great Britain by Macmillan in 1970.
This edition published in 2009 by
Soho Press, Inc.
New York, NY 10003
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
What’s a ‘medium’? He’s a means,
Good, bad, indifferent, still the only means
Spirits can speak by.’
It’s all absurd, and yet
There’s something in it all, I know: how much?
FOUR PAIRS OF HANDS were pressed palm downwards on the mess-room table at Paradise Street Police Station, Rotherhithe. A uniformed sergeant, pale and gaunt behind a magnificent moustache, was exhaling evenly and audibly, as if at a medical inspection. But his eyes were closed, in the proper manner of a medium in trance.
‘By George, I can hear something rapping!’ whispered a young constable to his right.
‘That’s the buckle of his belt knocking against the edge of the table,’ pointed out an older officer, facing him.
‘The table moved!’ insisted the constable. ‘I felt it move!’
‘Lord help us, you’re right! The blooming thing’s coming alive!’
The medium had grown noticeably more pink. His eyes remained closed and his hands stayed firmly on the table, which was unquestionably mobile. The vibrations seemed to originate at the opposite end, where a stoutly-built sergeant was seated. The table looked like shortly achieving sufficient momentum to overturn altogether, but a timely stiffening of the medium’s arms restored stability. At the same time he emerged sufficiently from his trance to glare across the table.
‘Spirits are agitated tonight,’ said the fat sergeant, in justification.
‘Perhaps they’ve got a message for us,’ suggested the young constable.
‘Wait a bit,’ said the medium in a strange voice. ‘There’s something coming through.’
The officers round the table peered expectantly at him as he began to moan. At the far end of the room a large, bearded detective-constable continued unconcernedly with the report he was writing.
‘Is there someone there?’ asked the medium, addressing his remark to the ceiling.
The flame in the gas-lamp above the table might have leapt a quarter-inch higher, but there was no other appreciable response.
‘Are you trying to get through?’
Three faint knocks were heard from under the table.
‘Did you hear that?’ demanded the young constable.
‘That’s one of ’em for sure,’ confirmed the sergeant, shuffling in his chair, ‘It’s their way of communicating. Three knocks for yes, one for no.’
‘Do you have a message for one of us?’ the medium asked the spirit.
The three knocks were repeated, more boldly.
‘Is it for the sergeant, here?’
One knock indicated that it was not.
‘The constable on my left?’
‘The one on my right, then?’
The young constable sighed in relief as the spirit excluded him, too.
The medium frowned. ‘Is it for me, then?’
‘Well, who the hell
it for?’ the fat sergeant demanded.
This time the spirit disdained to reply.
‘Can’t make up its blooming mind.’
‘Stop your jaw a moment,’ said the medium. ‘I’ll tell you what we’re going to do.
can ask the questions, and we’ll invite the spirit to use my voice to answer ’em. That’s how all the regular mediums work. Give me a moment first to clear my mind of worldly thoughts.’ He closed his eyes again, and presently slumped forward on the table with his head between his hands.
With a glance at his companions, the fat sergeant put the first question: ‘Are you still there?’
‘Yes,’ intoned the voice of the medium, a shade thicker than before.
‘Do you have a message?’
‘Who is it for?’
‘One what is present, but not at the table.’
The fat sergeant turned in his chair to look at the only other occupant of the room, still diligently writing his report. ‘Well, of all the . . . It’s for you, Thackeray!’
Detective-Constable Edward Thackeray wiped the nib of his pen and put it down. ‘Eh? What did you say?’
‘The message. It’s for you.’
‘From the spirit.’
‘Oh,’ said Thackeray, without much interest. ‘I don’t hold much with that sort of caper.’
‘Wait. We’ll see who it comes from.’ He addressed the spirit in a solemn voice. ‘Who are you?’
‘Charlie,’ said the medium.
‘I don’t know anyone called Charlie,’ said Thackeray, and picked up his pen, as if that settled the matter.
‘Charlie Peace,’ boomed the spirit voice, unsolicited.
Thackeray wheeled round. Everyone at Paradise Street knew that he owed his place in the Criminal Investigation Department to the part he had played in arresting the notorious Peace in 1878. It was his principal topic of mess-room conversation.
‘Would that be Charlie Peace, the Banner Cross murderer?’ queried the fat sergeant, with a wink at his companions.
‘The same,’ said the voice.
‘I don’t believe it,’ said Thackeray, in a tone suggesting the opposite.
‘Swung for me crimes at Leeds Prison seven years back,’ added the spirit voice, by way of amplification. ‘And might ’ave been walkin’ the earth today, robbin’ and murderin’ me fellow-creatures if it wasn’t for Constable Thackeray.’
‘That’s a fact, at any rate,’ said Thackeray. ‘Haven’t I always told you blokes as much?’
‘Why, so you have,’ said the fat sergeant. ‘As much, and a sight more sometimes, wouldn’t you say, mates?’
There were nods and winks all round.
‘Let’s find out what the message is, then,’ he continued.
‘If Charlie Peace has come voluntary into a police station, it
be important.’ He looked at the ceiling. ‘What do you want to say to Constable Thackeray, Charlie?’
The bowed figure of the medium did not move. ‘I ’ave come with a summons for Constable Thackeray.’
‘A summons?’ repeated Thackeray.
‘Well, that’s a change,’ said the sergeant. ‘Charlie serving a summons on one of
‘Are you there, Thackeray?’ asked the voice.
Thackeray got to his feet like a schoolboy named in class.
‘Why, yes. I suppose I am.’
‘Then you must prepare yourself. I ’ave come to tell you that you are shortly goin’ on a journey.’
‘A journey? Where to?’
There was a pause. ‘To the Other Side.’
Thackeray’s jaw dropped open. ‘The Other Side?’
Quite without warning the medium discharged himself from his trance and sat upright, a broad grin across his face. ‘Yes, Thackeray, the Other Side. Of the river, of course. Message from Great Scotland Yard came in by despatchcart this evening. You’re commanded to report to Sergeant Cribb at nine o’clock sharp tomorrow morning.’
With satisfying slowness, the realisation that he had been hoaxed dawned on Thackeray’s face. The others were laughing too much to escape the bombardment of bound volumes of the
that presently hurtled across the room.
ALTHOUGH IT WAS several months since they had worked together, Sergeant Cribb wasted no time on cordialities when Thackeray reported next morning.
‘Keep your coat on, Constable. We’re not staying here.’
No offer of a mug of Scotland Yard cocoa to revive a man’s circulation on a frosty November morning. Lord no, that wasn’t Cribb’s style at all. Instead, a rapid inspection with the gimlet eyes.
‘You look older, Thackeray.’
‘That must be the frost on my beard, Sarge. I couldn’t get a place inside the bus. Had to travel on top.’
‘You’d keep in better shape if you walked.’
Thackeray grimaced at the thought. ‘Have a heart! It’s over three miles from Rotherhithe, Sarge.’
‘You’d do it under the hour, easy. I don’t like to see a man go soft just because he’s taken off the beat to do detective work. Now trot downstairs and stop a cab, will you? We’re off to Burlington House.’
‘The Royal Academy? We can walk that in twenty minutes,’ Thackeray volunteered. ‘It’s under a mile. I ain’t
Cribb shook his head. ‘Not this time, Thackeray. It’s not the class of place you approach on foot. When you go to the Royal Academy you drive through the arch and round the courtyard to the entrance. It’s a first principle of plain clothes work that you don’t draw attention to yourself by behaving erratic.’
Thackeray had guessed there would be
good reason for taking a cab. There inevitably was when Cribb was planning a journey.
By half past nine they were being escorted up the main staircase of Burlington House by the keeper. The galleries were not opened to the public before eleven, but he recognised and admitted the ‘detective gentlemen’ at once, for all Cribb’s care over the first principle of plain clothes work.
On the top floor they entered a long room hung with large canvases in ornate gilt frames.
‘The new Diploma Gallery,’ announced the keeper.
At the far end, a familiar figure in a silk hat was studying a picture.
‘Looks as if Inspector Jowett has become a patron of the arts,’ Cribb remarked to Thackeray. ‘Thank you, Keeper.
We’ll join the other gentleman now.’
They got within a few yards of the inspector before he sidestepped slickly away from the subject of his study, a larger-than-life rendering of the Judgment of Paris, and faced them from the less distracting backcloth of a still life with pheasants. ‘Ah, Sergeant Cribb,’ he said, putting away a pair of
neither detective had ever seen him use before. ‘Your first visit to the Academy, I dare say.’
‘Quite correct, sir. The only portraits I get to see are the ones in the Convict Office.’
‘So I expected. In this suite of galleries you will find the work of the Academicians themselves. Each one, when he is elected, has to deposit a painting or sculpture known as his Diploma work. To your left, Sergeant, is a Gainsborough.’
‘You don’t say so, sir!’ said Cribb, with some attempt at awe.
‘And within a few feet of us are a Reynolds and a Turner.’
‘And a Constable, sir,’ Thackeray innocently added.
The back of Inspector Jowett’s neck stiffened. The air was thick with possibilities of insubordination.
‘And there’s a Landseer,’ said Cribb quickly.
‘I think we had better address ourselves to the reason for our presence here,’ said Jowett, after an interval. ‘I want you most particularly to examine the Etty over here.’
He led them to a canvas largely occupied by the reclining form of a young woman, naked save for a wisp of fabric draped artfully over the hip. Her arms were curled above her head in the abandon of sleep. A creature half-human, half-goat, was in the act of lifting a sheet that had seemingly provided an adequate covering a moment before. A second creature of the same genus was trying to restrain his companion. It was entitled
Sleeping Nymph and Satyrs.
‘Do you have any observations?’ Jowett asked, facing the painting.
Cribb, unschooled in criticism of the Fine Arts, said nothing.
Thackeray filled the breach. ‘The one with the sheet looks a bit like Percy Alleway of C Division.’
Out of sight of Jowett, Cribb jerked his hand in a desperate gesture of constraint. To his surprise the inspector turned on Thackeray with an expansive smile. ‘Splendid, Constable! It is manifestly clear from what you say that you are examining the painting as a good detective should, attempting to find some detail that will fix it indelibly in your memory. That is exactly what I have brought you here to do. Continue, if you please. You, too, Sergeant.’ He gripped Cribb’s arm and brought him closer to the nymph, as if introducing a bloodhound to the scent. ‘Neglect nothing. The disposition of the limbs. The highlighting of the flesh. There’s nothing in the Royal Academy unfit for Scotland Yard to set its eyes upon, you know.’ Then he stepped away along the gallery, leaving the two of them in uncomfortable surveillance of the picture. After a suitable interval he returned. ‘All committed to memory? I knew I could rely on you both. It is most important, you see, that you recognise this scene when you see it again, as I trust you will before long.’
Cribb frowned at the canvas, pondering over Jowett’s meaning. Was this visit to the Academy going to become a regular thing, then—some ill-conceived attempt by the Home Office to bring sweetness and light into the lives of the lower ranks? ‘You want us to recognise it again, sir?’
‘That was the burden of my remarks, Sergeant. I hope I made myself clear.’
‘You did, sir.’ Cribb paused, and asked, ‘You weren’t expecting someone to try and steal it?’
‘Oh no. The stealing has been done. I want you to recover it.’
Cribb shook his head. ‘You’ve lost me now, sir.’
‘Really? Perhaps one ought to explain that Etty painted two versions of his
identical except in certain trivial details. The first was in effect a practice piece for this, his diploma work. It is the first version that has been stolen. It was the property until last week of an acquaintance of mine not entirely unknown in the world of science.’
‘Science?’ repeated Cribb, eyeing the canvas again.
‘A man of cultivated taste,’ Jowett went on. ‘A member of the Royal Society. I don’t suppose you will have heard of him. Dr Probert.’
‘Dr Probert’s Pick-me-up?’ interjected Thackeray. ‘I’m never without a bottle, sir.’
Dr Probert,’ said Jowett icily. ‘Dr Probert of the University of London, the eminent physiologist. A man of the most refined taste. I was with him socially only yesterday evening. He is most exercised over the loss of his Etty. He has asked me personally to ensure its recovery.’
‘So you brought us here to see one?’ said Cribb.
‘Just so.’ Jowett appeared relieved that he was making himself clear again. ‘It is fortunate that we have this version for you to examine.’
‘But you mentioned some differences from the original.’
‘Yes. Quite unimportant. Dr Probert’s painting is without the piece of material here that is draped over the—er—hip. Doubtless Etty was mindful that his diploma work would go on public exhibition. Ladies, you know. The first version has always been privately owned. Few people know of its existence, which makes the theft all the more difficult to account for.’
‘Was anything else taken?’