Barry Maitland: The Marx Sisters

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Barry Maitland The Marx Sisters
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    The Marx Sisters
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The Marx Sisters

Barry Maitland

Part I


‘Something ain’t right.’ Meredith glared at her two sisters, sitting facing each other at the far end of the table, in front of the window. Eleanor looked at her carefully, recognizing the pouted lip that signified she was being stubborn.

‘Well, your apple sponge was beautiful, as always, dear.’ Peg dabbed her mouth meticulously with her napkin.

‘What do you mean, “Something isn’t right”?’ Eleanor said.

‘The way the Kowalskis decided to up and leave, just like that, all of a sudden. They should have discussed it.’

‘They’re retiring, Meredith. They don’t have to discuss it. They’re getting on, and the bookshop couldn’t have been making them much of a living.’

‘Adam Kowalski is a hopeless businessman, that’s true,’ Meredith conceded ungraciously. ‘Anyone could have made a better job of selling second-hand books than Adam Kowalski. But what about Konrad Witz next door? His camera shop has been doing well enough. He told me so, after the Christmas season last year.’

‘He’s at an age to retire too, dear. They sold together to get a better price, so someone can knock the two shops together if they want. That’s what Mr Hepple said. You remember.’

‘I don’t like empty shop windows, Eleanor. It gives me the creeps.’

Looking at her two sisters, Meredith was struck by how little they had all changed since they were girls. Eleanor, the youngest, was the same headstrong child she had been then, always certain she knew best, all elbows and knees, head in the clouds and holes in her socks. Meredith was irritated to find herself wondering, exactly as her mother had done sixty years before, whether Eleanor had remembered to put on fresh knickers that morning. And Peg was still the neat, sweet little girl who could always find a way to get other people to do things for her.

‘Adam Kowalski looks more and more like a beanpole every time you see him,’ Peg piped up.

‘Have you ever noticed,’ Eleanor said, ‘how he always runs his hand over the plaque in the wall beside his shop, every time he passes? I wonder if he is a secret believer.’

‘No.’ Peg shook her head. ‘I saw him do it and I asked him why, and he said he did it for luck. He said that Karl Marx might be the most famous man in the world, and he, Adam Kowalski, the least, but Marx was dead and he was alive, and that, in the end, was all that really counted.’

‘That,’ said Eleanor severely, ‘is a matter of opinion.’

Peg suddenly gave a little shiver. Meredith, thinking of the electricity bill, snapped, ‘It’s not cold, Peg. Look at the sun out there.’

It was true. The golden light was gleaming on the chimneys and slate roofs of the buildings on the other side of the Lane.

‘It is a beautiful day, dear,’ Peg replied wistfully. Then impulsively she added, ‘Why don’t you come with us today, Meredith? Just this once?’

‘Why should I want to go for a walk in a flippin’ cemetery?’ Meredith sniffed. ‘I’ll get there in a box soon enough, I dare say. No, thank you, I’ll put me feet up as usual and have me glass of port and forty winks.’

‘Come on,’ Eleanor said to Peg, getting to her feet. ‘We’ll clear the table and do the washing-up before we go.’


Kathy came running down the stairs to the mortuary feeling like a school kid late for classes. This is ridiculous, she thought, it’s my case, and stopped to get her breath. She pulled her sweater straight over the pleats of her skirt and ran a hand across the fair hair pulled to the back of her head, then stepped forward and pushed open the plastic swing doors.

There were half a dozen people in the room. She recognized the pathologist, Dr Mehta, standing by an open filing cabinet, writing on a clip-board, while his assistant, green-overalled and already kitted out with rubber gloves and cap, was sorting through nasty-looking tools on a stainless-steel tray. The anxious woman in the dark suit was probably from the coroner’s office, and a photographer sat near her, looking bored and hung-over.

In front of Kathy, and with his back to her, a big man in a surprisingly smart suit was leaning forward, peering at the table in the centre of the room. His hands were clutched behind his back, and from their fingers hung the straps of a Polaroid camera. Less like a Legend of the Yard, she thought, than an overdressed tourist. He straightened as the doors flapped closed behind her, and turned, peering at her over the top of the half-lens glasses perched on the end of his nose. She hadn’t expected the almost boyish thatch of hair, and the beard. Both hair and beard were grey, almost bluegrey in the cold fluorescent light.

‘Detective Sergeant Kolla,’ she said brightly, extending her hand, expecting some put-down for being late, knowing his reputation among the junior officers at Division. But he just beamed at her, a big bear of a man, twice her weight, and took her hand, introducing himself disarmingly without rank. ‘David Brock,’ he said in a low growl.

They both turned their attention back to the body.

The old woman looked smaller and more frail here, naked on the table, than when Kathy had seen her yesterday, lying peacefully on her bed in her woollen cardigan and skirt and thick stockings. Now her face was tinged grey on one side, and her eyes seemed to have sunk back into their sockets behind the wrinkled lids. Her dowager’s hump was quite pronounced, forcing her shoulders forward as she lay on her back on the stainless-steel surface. Kathy’s eyes skipped quickly down her body, over the withered breasts, the pubic hair ginger unlike the silver hair on her head, to the feet gnarled with arthritis.

Dr Mehta broke the silence. ‘You’ll make the identification, Sergeant?’

‘Yes. This is the same woman I saw yesterday at 22 Jerusalem Lane, WC2, at’-she consulted her notebook-‘16.56.’

‘How do you spell your name?’ he asked. She told him, watching Brock bend lower again until his nose was within a few inches of the old woman’s face.

‘I’m damned if I can see any spots, Sundeep,’ he muttered.

‘On the scalp, just inside the hair line, Chief Inspector. In any case,’ he continued, addressing himself to Kathy in his precise, formal manner, ‘petechial haemorrhages don’t prove anything. They can be a sign of smothering, but they’re also seen in other conditions of terminal lack of oxygen and congestion, such as heart failure, so they’re not diagnostic of asphyxia in the forensic sense.’

He returned to filling in his form.

‘Her skin is pretty tough,’ Brock remarked.

‘Yes. I’d say she spent some years out in the sun, in a warmer climate than we are blessed with in these blighted shores.’

‘Oh now, it hasn’t been a bad summer,’ Brock murmured absently, continuing his detailed inspection of the corpse. ‘What about these faint bruises on the upper arms? Could somebody have held her down?’

Dr Mehta shrugged. ‘Perhaps she got so excited watching the gee-gees on TV she gripped her own arms too tightly. They bruise very easily, these old dears.’

‘But you’ve got the bag?’ Kathy broke in, and turned to Brock. ‘We found a plastic bag in her kitchen rubbish bin which had moisture inside, and a couple of silver hairs.’

‘Oh yes, I’ve got it,’ said Dr Mehta, ‘and of course we’ll test it against the swabs. Anyway, we’ll have a good look at blood fluidity and, of course, the condition of the heart, dilatation of heart chambers, oedema of the lungs, congestion of organs, et cetera, et cetera, but, I’m not in the least sanguine, Sergeant, that in the end I’ll even be able to establish the cause of death, let alone provide you with clues.’

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