‘This —’ The owner of the house cleared his throat and tried again. ‘This is highly irregular.’ He tapped the letter from Whitmore Photographic. ‘The proprietor assures me that he will personally be taking Flora’s portrait.’
Julia McAllister glanced at the four-year-old, sitting bolt upright in her best pink taffeta dress. A froth of ringlets cascaded over her shoulders, and the silver locket round her neck twinkled in the meagre light. With her favourite dolls cradled in her arms, three of them in each, you could be forgiven for thinking the little mite was still alive.
‘My employer, poor man, his health took a turn for the worse.’ Julia flashed a tortured smile. ‘His heart, I’m afraid. Notoriously unreliable.’
‘Yes, but even so.’ Her client’s eyebrows met when he frowned. ‘A woman?’
Julia slotted the plate holder into her camera. She bit her lip, and reminded herself that this was just a job, another routine portrait — that she should knuckle down, take the picture, forget the subject was a baby.
‘Mr. Whitmore would not have entrusted me with such a sensitive task,’ she assured the grieving father, ‘unless he had every confidence in my ability.’
‘For my part —’ his wife’s voice was little more than a croak — ‘I’m comforted that a member of my own sex is looking after Flora. Women,’ she added shakily, ‘are infinitely more sympathetic, so come, dear.’ She pulled her husband’s sleeve. ‘Let us leave Miss McAllister in peace.’
Mrs., Julia wanted to correct. It’s Mrs. McAllister. But the death of their only child was testing the couple’s strength, their marriage and, judging from the cross on the mantelpiece that had been laid flat, their faith in Jesus Christ. Like families everywhere, too much in life had been taken for granted. It was only when the flame was snuffed, in this case without warning, that it was driven home how little they had to remind them of their loved ones. They wanted this picture to cling to and cherish.
‘Rest assured,’ she said, ‘I will do your daughter proud.’
Alone in the parlour, Julia took a series of deep breaths and forced herself to block out the red flock walls that threatened to close in, the gagging scent of lilies, the silence of the grandfather clock, whose pendulum had been removed and wouldn’t be replaced until Flora lay in her grave. How sad. How desperately tragic. When your husband dies, you become a widow. When your parents die, you become an orphan. Yet there’s no word to describe someone who loses a child.
To calm her nerves, Julia followed her familiar ritual of running her hand over the Spanish mahogany case of her camera, inhaling the leathery tang of the bellows and fingering the handmade dovetail joints. (None of those factory-made monstrosities, thank you very much.) By the time she’d given the brass fittings one last unnecessary polish, she felt in control, and disappearing under the heavy dark cover, she examined the image. After all this time, she hadn’t grown used to seeing the world upside down, but there, now — a quick tweak to the focus, a slight tilt to the left, a touch of back swing and —
Mother of God!
The girl’s hand moved.
Nonsense. It must have been a trick of the candles, and that was the problem with having the curtains drawn and the mirrors draped in black. The shadows played havoc.
There! It moved again!
Julia sloughed the sheet from her shoulders and squinted. Impossible. Flora fell downstairs and snapped her neck. In fact, the only thing holding her upright was a metal clamp under her pretty lace collar, and a rope, artfully hidden by dolls, tying the girl to the chair. Julia should know. She’d put them there.
No, no, no. The dead don’t —
‘Ow!’ a voice squealed.
‘Were you trying to steal that locket?’ Julia grabbed the young boy hiding behind the body.
‘Lemme go, you’re pinching!’
‘Did you think I wouldn’t spot a third hand? A third hand, I might add, caked with a six-inch layer of grime.’
‘I said lemme go!’
‘This will be a double exposure in every sense, if you don’t quit squawking.’ Julia examined the urchin in front of her. Eight, was he? Nine? ‘How did you get in?’
‘Door’s open, innit.’
Of course. The front door had been left partly open for mourners to enter without jarring the nerves already stretched past breaking point.
‘So you thought you’d sneak in and steal the locket that probably contains a clipping of her hair, which is all her mother has to remember her only daughter by?’
The defiance crept out of the boy’s face. ‘You gonna report me to the rozzers?’
‘Because these are good people, who don’t need to know that some stray urchin crept in their house, defiled their daughter’s body and was caught stealing her precious locket. They’ve suffered tragedy enough, and I won’t have you adding to their misery.’
‘Wotcha gonna do, then?’
‘I am going to take this girl’s portrait, that’s what I’m going to do, and you, sir, are going to help me.’
‘Me? I don’t know nuffin’ about photographs.’
Julia fluffed the girl’s lace collar to hide the mucky handprint on the taffeta. ‘You don’t need to. Just hold the curtain open — the left one if you please — to throw some decent light in the room.’
‘Exactly like that.’ She pressed the shutter release, changed the plate, took another, then another, then another.
‘Why d’you take so many?’ He sniffed, and wiped his nose on his sleeve. ‘It’s not like she’s gonna move and throw the focus out.’
‘For someone who professes to know nothing about photography, you seem remarkably well informed. However, your expertise is no longer required, young man. Time for you to leave, preferably in the same covert manner in which you arrived.’
‘Can’t I —?’
Julia packed up her camera, collapsed her tripod and dismantled the contraption that was holding Flora upright, before packing her accessories back in the case and promising the grieving couple that Whitmore Photographic would be giving Flora’s portrait the utmost priority.
Outside, Julia felt the weight lift from her. After a month of non-stop drizzle that had combined with the smoke from the factories to form a choking, brown, sulphurous stew, the sun was a welcome sight, and Julia wasn’t alone in her joy. Half the population of Oakbourne, it seemed, had turned out to celebrate. The street shimmered with jewel-coloured silks, wide hats festooned with feathers, wasp waists, and shoes with toes so pointed they could put an eye out. Impressive moustaches paraded beneath dark derby hats. Parasols twirled, hansom cabs rattled, and (shock, horror!) could that really be ladies riding bicycles in bloomer suits? Flower girls proffered violets, carnations and stocks a penny a bunch, puppies chased their own tails and a boy played a harp taller than himself to an enraptured audience on the corner.
Stopping at the strawberry barrow, Julia smelled her scrawny assistant before she saw him. ‘You again.’
‘Seeing as how I helped out back there, I thought you might wanna give me sixpence for me troubles.’
‘How about I give you a clip round the ear?’
‘Cow,’ he muttered. Julia checked her black beaded purse. Strangely, it was still there. ‘Threepence, then.’
Dear Lord, give me strength. ‘Suppose we say no pence, and I don’t call the police?’
‘Suppose I went up your chimney and cleaned it?’
‘You’re too old, you’d get stuck, and by the time you’d starved to death and your skeleton dropped out, I’d have died from frostbite, waiting. Go away.’
‘I’ll settle for a ha’penny.’
Julia pulled the boy out of the path of a hackney cab and pointed with her strawberry in the opposite direction to which she was headed. ‘Go. Now.’
‘S’pose I said I wasn’t stealing nuffin’. S’pose I told you, I just wanted to see what a pretty girl looks like dead, coz the only corpses I seen are under the bridges by the canal, and them’s anything but pretty.’
Against her better judgment, Julia gave him her last strawberry. It disappeared whole, green bits, stalk, and all. ‘What’s your name?’
A grubby shoulder shrugged. ‘Short for Bugger Off, which is what most people —’
‘No explanation required. In fact, I can well see the attraction in offering that particular piece of advice, but tell me — Bug — when was the last time you took a bath?’
‘What’s it to you?’
‘Personally, very little.’ Julia set down her clutter of camera, tripod, cases and clamps. ‘In terms of community service, however, I feel it only fair to remedy the situation.’
Grabbing him by the collar with one hand and the seat of his moth-eaten pants with the other, Julia dropped Bug in the horse trough.
The resulting yells were more than satisfactory. Even if the language wasn’t.
But it was little Flora’s face that stayed with Julia as she pushed through the crush of Cadogan Street and into Westgate Road. Requests for post-mortem photographs — memento mori, as they were popularly called — were becoming more and more common, and this was by no means the first that Julia had taken. Some of her subjects were old, well into their eighties, some were children, a few already laid out in their coffin. Rather memorably, one old chap had begun to decay.
For the sake of authenticity, some of her clients she propped standing up, some with their heads in their hands, some leaning back with a newspaper as though they’d nodded off in mid-read. One lady the family had wanted sitting at a table laid with glassware, cutlery and plates, as though waiting for her dinner guests. Many, like little Flora, had their eyes open. With others, she painted their eyelids to make it look like they were posing for the camera. She perched dogs on their laps. (Stuffed, of course — live animals don’t sit still long enough for the exposure). Several were arranged with their entire families around them and on one notable occasion, it had been impossible to tell which of the eight was the corpse.
None — not one — of those subjects had affected her like this.
Perhaps it was because Flora was an only child, and the mother was of an age when she was unlikely to conceive again. Perhaps it was the dignity with which the couple bore their grief. Perhaps it was the little girl herself, taken in the blink of an eye. Either way, this morning left a nasty taste in Julia’s mouth. One that even the reddest, ripest strawberries couldn’t take away.
‘Ah. The lady photographer, I presume?’
Julia eyed up the man waiting outside her shop, set down her equipment and proceeded to unlock the door. He didn’t look bereaved, was too old to be getting married, and too young to have a daughter needing a wedding recorded for posterity. In fact, in his smart grey lounge suit, derby hat and cocky air, she wouldn’t mind betting he wanted to commission a portrait of himself. Recorded for posterity.
‘What exactly are you wanting, Mr —?’
‘Collingwood.’ For all the width of his smile, it didn’t reach his eyes. Eyes, the artist in her noted, the same hue as his suit. ‘Inspector. Detective Inspector Collingwood, of the Boot Street Police Station. You’d be Miss —?’
‘Mrs.’ Julia hoped that stacking her equipment would excuse not shaking hands. Shaking being the operative word. ‘It’s Mrs. McAllister,’ she said. ‘Now what can I help you with, Inspector? An official police photograph, taken in the station?’
‘Not exactly.’ He walked slowly round the shop, examining the frames on display, the portraits hanging in the window, the showcase of photos, the little china dogs on sale as a side-line. ‘Does the name Eleanor Stern mean anything to you?’
Relief washed over Julia, leeching the strength from her knees — its place instantly taken by a new surge of anxiety. Nellie, Nellie, what have you done now?
‘Can’t say it does.’
An image flashed through Julia’s head. Black stockings drawn over chubby knees. Enormous breasts. The coquettish twist to Lily’s lips as she tweaked her own nipple.
‘Again, no, doesn’t ring a bell.’
‘Hm.’ Collingwood paced a bit more. He stared out of the window at the Common, where lovers strolled arm in arm beneath the oaks, ladies of a certain age walked their Pomeranians, and nannies in uniform pushed perambulators as they eyed the soldiers from the corner of their eye. ‘Bridget O’Leary, though. Surely you know her?’
‘Sorry…’ No smile was ever more apologetic. ‘Then again, a lot of ladies have their portraits taken, Inspector. I could check the ledger, if you like?’
‘That won’t be necessary.’ The pacing changed from clockwise to anti-clockwise. ‘Mr. Whitmore.’ He ran his hand across a silver frame with embossed cherubs on the corners. ‘He left you this business when he died, is that correct?’
‘Yet four years later, you haven’t changed the name above the shop, and still pretend to clients that Samuel Whitmore’s alive?’
If it had been anyone else, she would have passed that off as respect to her benefactor’s generosity. Unfortunately, there are only so many lies you can tell the police.
‘Pretend is a strong word, Inspector. As a woman fighting to survive, not only in commerce but in what is very much a man’s world, I find it simpler not to disabuse them.’
‘Of course.’ Collingwood switched his derby from his left hand to his right, then back again. ‘And you’re not familiar with the names Lily Atkins, Bridget O’Leary and Eleanor, more commonly known as Nellie, Stern?’
‘I thought we’d already agreed I am not.’
‘Had we? Because these photographs were found in their rooms.’
One by one, he laid them on the walnut counter like a deck of cards. All three were along the lines of the image that had flashed through Julia’s mind a moment before. Although in Nellie’s case, perhaps a little more so.
‘Inspector!’ Julia swept them off the counter. ‘How dare you bring such filth into my premises!’
Something twitched at the side of his mouth as he bent to retrieve them. With luck, it was indigestion. ‘My apologies if the content offends you, Mrs. McAllister, but you notice that, on the reverse of these prints, is your stamp.’
Damn. She never put her address on the back of any incriminating — Wait. Whitmore Photographic? In her distinctive purple ink…?
‘I have no idea how that got there.’ And that was the truth. ‘But as far as I’m aware, no law has been broken in either posing for pornographic photographs, or taking them.’
‘Quite so. The crime lies in the possession and distribution of lewd material, although it piques my interest that you’re aware of this fact.’
A trickle of sweat snaked down Julia’s backbone. ‘You wouldn’t believe the requests I receive from certain members of the public.’
‘Hm.’ Collingwood’s grey eyes — wolf’s eyes — held hers for what seemed like two days, but was probably only a couple of seconds. She swore she heard the dust motes hitting the ground. ‘Your husband.’
‘Where might I find him?’
One eyebrow rose. ‘Fighting in the campaign?’
‘Buried there.’ Julia smoothed her skirts. ‘Now then, Inspector, if you don’t mind, a grieving family needs a portrait of their daughter — the only image they will have to remember her by.’
‘I understand. You need to get to work.’
‘The matter is pressing, and despite my trade plate on the back of these vile photographs, I assure you, I know nothing of their provenance, and to be honest, I’m offended that you think me acquainted with strumpets such as these.’ She forced a smile. ‘On the other hand, I can see how you made the connection, and — well, far be it for me to tell you your job, but wouldn’t it be simpler to ask the girls about the pictures?’
‘Strange as it might seem, that thought occurred to me, as well.’ Collingwood picked up a china dog, a King Charles Spaniel as it happened, examined the pottery mark, then replaced it in the exact position in which he had found it. ‘The problem with that line of enquiry is that all three are dead.’
‘I am sorry to hear that.’ Nellie? Lily? Little Birdie…?
‘Murdered,’ Collingwood said quietly. ‘And from what I can gather, Mrs. McAllister, you work alone on these premises, without an assistant.’
Breathe … breathe…
‘I’m sure there’s a point to that observation, Inspector.’
‘My point, Mrs. McAllister, is that all roads lead to Rome.’ He picked up another china dog, a Skye Terrier, and proceeded to examine it. ‘And you, it would seem, are standing in the middle of the Forum.’