Read The Steam Pig Online

Authors: James McClure

Tags: #ebook

The Steam Pig

  

The Steam Pig     

ALSO BY THE AUTHOR

KRAMER AND ZONDI NOVELS

The Caterpillar Cop
(1972)

The Gooseberry Fool
(1974)

Snake
(1975)

The Sunday Hangman
(1977)

The Blood of an Englishman
(1980)

The Artful Egg
(1984)

The Song Dog
(1991)

OTHER NOVELS

Four and Twenty Virgins
(1973)

Rogue Eagle
(1976)

Imago: A Modern Comedy of Manners
(1988)

NON-FICTION BOOKS

Killers: A Companion to the Thames Television Series
By Clive Exton
(1976)

Spike Island: Portrait of a British Police Division
(1980)

Cop World: Inside an American Police Force
(1984)

 

Copyright © 1971 by James McClure

All rights reserved

First published in Great Britain in 1971

This edition published in 2010 by

Soho Press, Inc.

853 Broadway

New York, NY 10003

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

McClure, James, 1939-2006.

The steam pig / James McClure.

      p. cm.

ISBN 978-1-56947-652-9

eISBN 978-1-56947-896-7

1. Kramer, Trompie (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Zondi, Mickey (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 3. Police—South Africa—Fiction.

I.Title.

PR9369.3.M394S7 2010

823—dc22

                                                         2010008175

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

 

To Lorly
    

The Steam Pig

 

1

F
OR AN UNDERTAKER
George Henry Abbott was a sad man. He let his job get on top of him. He let it keep him awake nights. He made mistakes.

But business stayed good. It helped, having a name that had an alphabetical right to head the list of funeral directors in the Yellow Pages. And having a telephone number like 77007. Five digits—not a big city, even by South African standards, yet both populous and lethal enough to allow Mr Abbott and his competitors little time for the morning newspaper.

Straight after breakfast he got up and opened the refrigerator door. The night before Farthing, his young assistant, had seen to the morning job and left him the two on the right. With a sigh, he stooped and tugged at the bottom tray. It slid out silently before being arrested with a slight bump which set the toes quivering.

Mr Abbott found the sight of them caused a strange, pleasurable ticking on the roof of his stomach. He could tell a lot from toes. These were very neat with a suggestion of intelligence more like thumbs. And very feminine.

Using the Pollock adjustable-height trolley, he transferred the tray's contents to the post-mortem slab. Two deft flicks removed the sheet and a third had it folded over his arm.

This time it got Mr Abbott in the pit of the stomach. The girl had been in the prime of life. And if there were such a thing, she was in the prime of death, too.

The startling beauty of the remains did not distress him. On the contrary, he had always held that his colleagues were being hypocritical when they declared themselves unmoved by any subject of their toil.

But he was right, damn them. Look at her. Like that poet had said: a thing of beauty was a joy for ever. The perfect figure, and bones good for years yet. The navel, a dainty dish, was especially fine.

His eyes felt none of the chill of the taut white skin. His fingertips rejoiced in the spring of the jet hair. Like the toes, the fingers were exquisitely shaped and well cared for. Not a mark or blemish anywhere.

He had left the face till last. Thank God, a young face. He had had his surprises. A practised pinch closed the mouth and showed its good humour. Above it a pert nose and alert unplucked eyebrows. The eyes had to be blue because the hair was blonde, real ash blonde. Yes, they were.

Beautiful. Minutes passed.

Then resentment caught him unawares and he found himself thinking of the wife. Mrs Priscilla Abbott, once the boss's widow, who had allowed him to put his own name up outside in the expectation this would encourage them to live happily ever after.

He just might have if there had been such a body to soothe the sour wrinkles from his mind after a late call. An urgent, life-giving body with thighs that pressed forward even in repose. Not a carrot-haired, obese form that never stirred, never uttered a sound as he tiptoed in, and had feet so cold their touch caused a spinal reflex which jerked him awake horribly.

“George!” She filled the doorway.

He gave three clumsy flicks and succeeded in covering the girl. Then he turned with a cough.

“That must be the one for the post mortem,” Mrs Abbott said.

Cough.

“Then let Dr Strydom do his own preparation for once and get the other one ready for three o'clock. I've just had the crematorium on the line and they say it's a heavy afternoon. We can't be late again.”

Cough.

“It's a Trinity job—get on with it!” Mrs Abbott snapped and went back to man the front office.

Her spouse hurried over for the second tray.

Three o'clock and all was going smoothly. Smoothly as grandad on castors, Farthing observed.

Mr Abbott frowned. Partly to discourage another laboured lapse of taste, partly because he always felt uneasy when there were no hitches to confirm the part he had played in making the arrangements. Gingerly, he began to review the proceedings.

To start with, it was an Arabella funeral, all inclusive at R128—or £64 sterling if you were dealing with one of the old families who still called the UK “home”. And had pictures of the Queen, Queen Victoria more often than not. How his mind wandered. He would pin it down with familiar fact.

Arabella was a code name used to spare relatives the added pain of mentioning money. They wandered at will around the showroom and made their choice from cards propped in little easels on each gleaming lid: Arabella, Doris, Daphne, Carson. Mrs Abbott had chosen the names. The cost was given discreetly small but in red.

Ah, not that there had been anyone to choose in this case. Or indeed any need for a stated preference. The Arabella, being a compromise between Doris (municipal pauper) and Daphne (genteely modest), was standard issue to members of the Trinity Burial Society.

Not that it was a burial either, but again he was right on this. An additional 20 cents on the weekly premium ensured cremation for the lonely old lady with that quite extraordinary tattoo few men could have seen. Or, God forbid, a great number.

Mr Abbott shuddered, dismissing his next thought.

Simultaneously a red light shone on the console in the crematorium superintendent's hidden cubicle. His right index finger, stiff as a baton, dropped on the button marked Organ Finale. His left activated the conveyor belt.

The 3 p.m. Arabella, Ref. No. A44/TBS, began its ponderous exit towards the hatch. At the last second an automatic trip parted the velvet drapes and it was gone. Then the oven door clanged faintly. Gone for good.

“Same age as me, too,” Farthing muttered as the music stopped.

He added something that Mr Abbott failed to catch as “Abide With Me” ran back at full volume to its starting point on the tape. But what he had said was more than enough.

The Rev Wilfred Cooke, curiously subdued by having addressed a chapel empty save for the Almighty, stepped down and dried his pink palm ready for the cheque.

Farthing was waiting in the superintendent's office to hand it over. Then he was to see to some plaques for the Garden of Remembrance. Maxwell & Flynn were due in at half-past for a society send-off and would give him a lift back to town.

For Mr Abbott had left very suddenly. The hearse once touched 58 mph—that was in Jacaranda Avenue.

From the street the premises of Abbott & Marcus Ltd appeared to have little to recommend them other than an old world matter-of-factness. But behind the coarse red-brick façade with its blue opaque windows and autumnal gold-leaf lettering, beyond the cream and brown office and showroom, was a mortuary few private concerns could equal.

It had been the realisation of a dream for Franklin Marcus, the first undertaker to reach what was then a frontier town. After an initial bit of bother with the carpenter, who resented losing a lucrative sideline, he secured a military contract on the eve of the first Zulu War and prospered exceedingly. Ploughing back his profits, Mr Marcus had two surgical tables shipped out and the walls of his new mortuary tiled to shoulder-height. A large cold room was then added which—as he said—made the place big enough for an army.

And in his early days, Mr Abbott had carried on the Marcus tradition by introducing a proper shadowless light and three wall cabinets of autopsy instruments. Although overt hostilities with the natives had ceased, a grossly inadequate State mortuary was often glad to have his facilities at its disposal. What was more, the State also found it expedient to have Mr Abbott attend to the rites after post mortem and this meant a handsome retainer, plus commission. He had always been very happy about this arrangement.

Until Farthing had uttered.

Mr Abbott swung the hearse into the yard gate and pulled up round the back beside the district surgeon's Pontiac. Damn the man—was he never late for anything? Most doctors were occasionally delayed by emergency calls, but not Dr Christiaan Strydom. His patients either queued at stipulated times for travel shots or waited, cool and unhurried, forever if need be.

He started across to the mortuary, wincing at the harsh grate of the gravel for it betrayed the undignified speed of his approach.

In there was the girl who had made his day; the sweet enigma who teased so sweetly and whose secrets he would never know.

And in there was Strydom, reading her like a book; the ribcage split down the sternum and opened out, the organs excised and placed neatly in a row like footnotes. Poring over her as indifferent to the odour as an antiquarian searching through a musty manuscript for something significant in the same old story.

Only it was the wrong book.

He slipped in one side of the double doors with their stained-glass panels, closed it carefully behind him, and edged over to the slab. The district surgeon went on filling in his form with no more than a nod. They were old friends.

Mr Abbott looked down at the toes. Clearly the label had been there all the time, for the string attaching it was deeply imbedded. Worse still, there were no blots or other defacements to obscure the details entered on the card in Farthing's childish cursive. The reference number was undeniably A44/TBS. Her name was not Elizabeth Bowen but Theresa le Roux.

He coughed.

Taking it as his cue, Dr Strydom rumbled: “Some bastard's going to pay for this, you have my word for it.”

Mr Abbott choked.

 

2

A
SUSPECT IN
the next room screamed. Not continuously, but at irregular intervals which made concentration difficult. Then the typewriter unaccountably jammed. The report was not going to be finished on time; Colonel Du Plessis had stipulated four o'clock and it was already 3.55 with at least a page to go.

“So you can bloody well stick it, Colonel sir,” Lieutenant Tromp Kramer declared loudly. He was quite alone in the Murder Squad office.

And finally giving vent to a righteous anger. There was simply no sense in risking a hernia by hammering out the mundane events which had led to the sudden messy death of Bantu female Gertrude Khumalo. No sense at all.

Her killer, one Bantu male Johannes Nkosi, had resisted arrest just before dawn and was mostly in the intensive care unit at Peacevale Hospital. His chances of standing trial were minimal, the doctors said—which was one way of putting it. Okay, so there would be an inquest. But an inquest was nothing compared to a court case. Nobody would be interested in more than a brief statement from the witness box. Nor would there be any trouble from the families involved. Gertrude's lot were more than satisfied with the way things had gone. Shanty town folk always relished a bit of rough justice administered in this world and the forensic niceties left for the next. As for Nkosi's relatives, they had never heard of him.

Plainly a lot of totally unnecessary paperwork and fiddle could be avoided by shelving the matter overnight. And the Colonel knew this only too well, the bastard.
He
had not been called out at 4 a.m.

Worse still, he would not even bother to glance through the report when he got it; if you've read one Bantu murder you've read the lot, he inevitably observed. All he wanted was the sordid particulars converted into a docket of nice clean paper which he could delicately press fore and aft with his rubber stamp. That done, he would smugly add the job to his Crimes Solved graph and get back to arse-creeping the Brigadier—yet another triumph for law and order reduced to a colonic toehold. The four o'clock deadline was quite arbitrary, a crude manifestation of incipient megalomania.

Which somehow brought the time up to a minute after the hour and the telephone rang.

Oh jesus, the Colonel. The voice from the carpeted office above was petulant. Kramer swung the receiver away from his ear and ran a finger down the thigh of his calendar girl. She was delightfully brown.

The shrill squeakings stopped abruptly.

Kramer responded with practised contrition: “Sorry, sir—I'll have it with you first thing tomorrow.
Hey?

Something had upset the Colonel but it was nothing to do with the report, that much was obvious. Kramer grabbed a ballpoint and managed to get down three names before the line went dead. Damn, he should have asked for a recap. He had not the faintest bloody idea what was going on.

Still, he had the names. While he did not know Theresa le Roux from Eve van der Genesis, the old music-hall turn of Abbott and Strydom was all too familiar. It gave more than a fair indication of where a fruitful investigation could start and about time, too.

He buzzed the duty officer, booked himself out, and left the building on foot. Georgie's place was just around the corner, behind the museum.

As Kramer turned into Ladysmith Street, he saw a taxi from the station rank draw up outside the funeral parlour. Almost immediately a great meal sack of a woman topped with ginger frizz launched herself at it from a side entrance, followed by an ageing cook boy dragging two suitcases. Then Georgie emerged cautiously into the street as if expecting sniper fire to do the soap-and-water bit with his hands.

Kramer sidestepped into a bus queue and watched the departure over the top of someone's evening newspaper.

Georgie's mute appeals were to no avail. Without sparing him a glance, Ma Abbott heaved herself aboard the taxi. It shuddered and then took off with a squeal of contempt from its tyres.

Somebody had been a naughty boy again. And this time the old bitch was not going to share in the disgrace. To give her credit where it was due, her loyalty had so far been remarkable, even at the height of the Sister Constance scandal. That was when Georgie had forgotten to finish off the eyes and had displayed the nun in the chapel with a lewd wink for her mourners.

The bus had been and gone and Kramer was standing alone on the kerb. Georgie had vanished. There was no more playing for time to be had—he would have to take a chance on his penchant for patterns.

The front office was empty apart from an elderly customer intent on a catalogue of ornate headstones. From the look of her, she had not a moment to lose.

Kramer went to the farthest end of the high counter and gave the service bell a pat. There was a responding clatter from somewhere offstage behind the curtains. Then nothing. Perhaps Georgie kept a cat—although Christ knew what mice would find to eat in the place.

He rang the bell again, twice.

Come to think of it, a satin-quilted de luxe model would make mice one hell of a boudoir. Maybe they came round at night to sleep and have their friends in. Hmm, premature burial was a risk. No doubt that could account for the frequent preoccupation of pallbearers processing with their ears pressed against the coffin side: they were evaluating the frantic scratching sounds from within.

But it would take some cat to tweak a peephole in the curtains five feet above their hem. And to creak the floorboards so loudly in retreat. Kramer found all this instructive and reassuring. Something was definitely in the air.

An impression which was confirmed almost immediately by the arrival of Sergeant Fanie Prinsloo, who was standing in as official photographer for the week.

“Come to take my little snaps,” he said cheerily, dumping an enormous gadget bag on the counter. Prinsloo could never resist bringing every damn bit of equipment with him; ordinarily he worked in Fingerprints and had to satisfy his artistic drive at weekends with a box camera.

Kramer greeted him guardedly.

“What gives, Lieutenant?” Prinsloo said after a pause.

“You try,” Kramer suggested, pushing across the bell.

Prinsloo was plainly puzzled by all this standing around on ceremony. But he grinned and thumped it with his sirloin of a fist. Still nothing happened.

So Kramer sighed and Prinsloo mistook relief for agitation. Not that the sergeant was stupid, simply new to CID and as yet poorly acquainted with the men in the Murder Squad—something which Kramer intended to exploit. His ploy was to invert the unwritten law No. 178/a which states it is an officer's prerogative to pretend ignorance in order to establish the efficiency of subordinates.

“Right, Sergeant, what were your orders?” Kramer challenged.

Orders was a rather strong word to use in the context of a routine assignment, but Prinsloo recognised the ritual and replied very properly: “I was told to report to you here and to take what pictures seemed necessary.”

“Of?”

“Some dolly or other.”

“Name?”

“Er—something Le Roux, sir.”

“Theresa le Roux?” Kramer snapped, inducing the required degree of discomfiture.

Predictably, in an attempt to appease, it now all came out in a rush: “Look sir, I was in the darkroom when the chief starts yelling through the door that I'd better get down here quick because you are on your way and Doc Strydom has done a p.m. on the wrong body because Abbott made a balls and it's murder.”

Kramer remained silent—which took some doing.

“That's all he said, sir. Plus the name. But you—”

“No need to get like that, Sarge,” Kramer said soothingly. “Got to keep you new boys on your toes.”

So that was it. A murder. And for once it sounded like the real thing.

Prinsloo just had time to grab his gear before Kramer disappeared through the curtains. Beyond them was the chapel, which reeked of stale vase water, and then a passage lined with floral tributes waiting to be distributed to the sick. Stepping carefully, they reached a door marked mortuary and pushed it open.

Dr Strydom was alone. He turned sharply at the sound of the door slamming back on its spring and hurriedly waddled over.

“Ah, Lieutenant, I'm delighted to see you.”

“Doctor.”

“Got my little message, did you?”

“Sort of.”

“Ah.”

“What's been going on here, then?”

Dr Strydom overtly looked round Kramer to see if there was anyone standing behind him.

“You've not seen Mr Abbott? Strange, I thought he was out there. This little affair is
rather
delicate.”

“Oh yes?”

A deep breath, then: “In a nutshell, Lieutenant, I'm afraid there's been a bit of a muddle. Two cadavers, both female, and my official one got cremated this afternoon.”

Prinsloo clucked his tongue like a wog washerwoman finding pee stains.

“Where does that leave us?” Kramer inquired coldly. He had not moved since entering.

Dr Strydom paused to pick his words.

“You could say a lot better off—if not too much fuss is made.”

Now Kramer was certain that the district surgeon had been party to the little affair, as he called it. Georgie had not accomplished it all by himself. However, that side of it could be dealt with later when the old dodderer's co-operation and self-confidence were not so essential. He shrugged negligently.

“Uhuh. Who went in the oven?”

“I took the liberty of checking while you were coming over,” Dr Strydom replied. “Some poor old dear found under a bush down near Mason's Stream where the sherry tramps hang out. Just a routine. Age? Booze? Both probably. Somebody to sign the certificate. A right tart in her day I hear.”

Kramer turned his gaze to the table.

“And this one? Another tart?”

“I very much doubt it,” Dr Strydom answered, snapping the cuffs of his rubber gloves.

“But you're sure it's murder?”

“Oh, yes! Why not see for yourself?” His tone became curiously gleeful, rather like an amateur magician's opening patter. Friends, I am about to utterly astonish you.

So the two detectives followed him over. On the way Kramer realised why the one place he hated seeing a stiff was a morgue. The trouble was the height of the table which gave you no opportunity to adjust to the sight by degrees on the approach. You had to be on top of it before you knew what it was all about.

Where Mr Abbott had last seen his Ophelia, Kramer now saw a life-size rag doll. Or so it seemed. Large knives, hardly scalpels, are used for opening a body. This one was now held together again by thick black thread in Dr Strydom's erratic herringbone stitch with the surgeon's tow stuffing protruding at intervals. It was also a patchwork of bright colours—the sun having shifted across to act like a giant projector lamp behind the stained glass windows. When Dr Strydom switched on the main light he heightened the illusion by rendering the hues in pastel, which better suited the form, and by making the untouched head and shoulders gleam like fine porcelain. Kramer noticed that a very tiny brush had been used to paint on such long eyelashes.

And he concentrated for a while on the head. One thing was certain: he had never seen it before—that was a face you would never forget. He bent to examine the hair roots.

“Yes, it's dyed,” Dr Strydom said. “Brown eyes, you see. A common enough failing among nice young women, not only tarts.”

Kramer jerked a thumb crudely.

“Well, on a rough guess, I'd say she lost her virginity about a year ago,” Dr Strydom chuckled. “But that doesn't amount to much these days either. You should see—”

“Any kids?”

“No, never.”

“Disease?”

“None.”

“Then the chances are she wasn't sleeping around, just having it with a steady.”

“Right.”

“That gives us something to go on. Recently, do you think?”

“Possibly not within twelve hours of death. Although it would depend on precautionary method preferred.”

Kramer smiled wryly at the lapse into clinic jargon. The old bugger was more himself now.

“Well, Doc, what about the m.o.?”

“Like to take a guess?”

“After you've hacked her around? It looks like a Mau Mau atrocity. What did the death cert. say?”

“Cardiac.”

“And what was it?”

“Bicycle spoke.”

The words stabbed. Christ, this was really something. Bantu murdering Bantu was nothing. White murdering white was seldom any better, they just had counsel who could make a ready reckoner wring your heart. But mix Bantu and white together and you had instant headlines two inches high. It remained to be seen how much larger they could grow when it was known that a bizarre Bantu weapon had been used.

Kramer gestured impatiently for the district surgeon to turn the body on its side.

“Know what the Lieutenant's up to?” Dr Strydom asked Prinsloo.

“He's looking for puncture marks along the spine,” Prinsloo whispered, “where they put the spoke in to paralyse her—like Shoe Shoe.”

Dr Strydom smiled smugly.

“She's
dead,
not paralysed, man. What's happened here is along the same lines but the intent is quite different. Think for a moment. When the spoke's used by the local boys they sterilise the point first with a match. Why? So there won't be any infection. So the victim will live to regret his mistakes as long as possible. Like Shoe Shoe, as you said.

“Here, however, it is used the way I saw it done thirty years ago on the Rand, in the Jo'burg townships. Not often, mind you, and it's so clever we probably missed dozens on a Monday with the weekend to clear up. Speciality of the Bantu gangs. Look …”

Dr Strydom pulled the left arm away from the body and propped it at right angles on the edge of the slab. He pointed.

“Tell me what you see there,” he said.

Other books

I've Got You Under My Skin by Mary Higgins Clark
Short Soup by Coleen Kwan
Duncton Wood by William Horwood
Chili Con Corpses by J. B. Stanley
El inquisidor by Patricio Sturlese
Chain of Title by David Dayen
Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay
The One She Was Warned About by Shoma Narayanan