Read Help the Poor Struggler Online

Authors: Martha Grimes

Help the Poor Struggler

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CONTENTS

Epigraph

Prologue

I

T
HE
A
LLEY BY THE
F
IVE
A
LLS

Chapter One

Chapter Two

II

T
HE
C
HURCH IN THE
M
OOR

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

III

T
HE
M
ARINE
P
ARADE

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

IV

T
HE
S
T.
V
ALENTINE'S
D
AY
M
ASSACRE

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

V

T
HE
J
ACK AND
H
AMMER

Chapter Fifteen

VI

T
HE
E
ND OF THE
T
UNNEL

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

VII

P
RETTY
M
OLLY
B
RANNIGAN

Chapter Twenty-Eight

To Leon Duke,

who leant a hand

and Mike Mattil,

who helped a poor struggler

Her mind lives tidily, apart

From cold and noise and pain,

And bolts the door against her heart,

Out wailing in the rain.

— Dorothy Parker

O, man, dear, did ya never hear

Of pretty Molly Brannigan?

She's gone away and left me

And I'll never be a man again;

Not a spot on me hide

Will the summer sun e'er tan again,

Now that Molly's gone and left me

Here for to die.

— Irish folk song

PROLOGUE

T
HE
little girl stood in her flannel nightdress holding the telephone receiver. She carefully dialed the numbers her mother always did when she wanted the operator.

A silky-haired cat at her feet arched its back, yawned, and began washing its paw as the little girl waited through several
brr-brr's
for the operator to answer. Maybe they didn't wake up until late, the little girl thought. Her mum always said they were lazy. She looked out the leaded glass window almost lost under its thatch collar to see it just pearling over with early-morning light and the moorland beyond floating in morning mist. There was a spiderweb with beads of dew between the thatch and the window. The
brr-brr
went on. She counted ten of them and then hung up and picked up the phone again. The cat leapt to the table to sit and watch the spider painstakingly finish its web.

Bloody operators.
That was what her mum always said, sitting here at the table, looking out like the cat, over the blank face of the moor that surrounded their hamlet. The phone kept
brr
-ing. The veil of gray light lifted like a delicate curtain drawn back showing the far horizon where a line of gold spun like the spiderweb.

There was a click, and someone answered. Her voice seemed to come from a great distance, as if she were calling across the moor out there.

The little girl held the black receiver with tight hands and tried to speak very clearly because if they didn't like you they'd just hang up. That's what her mother'd always said.
The cheek of them. Think they're the bloody Queen, some of them.
Her mother spent a lot of time on the telephone and slammed it down a lot.

“My mum's dead,” she said.

There was a silence and she was afraid the operator was going to hang up, like the Queen. But she didn't. The operator asked her to repeat what she'd just said.

“My mum's dead,” the little girl said patiently, despite her fright. “She never died before.”

Now the operator sounded much closer — not way off across the moor — and was asking her questions in a nice tone of voice. What was her name and where did she live?

“My name's Tess. We live in the moor.”
This bloody moor,
her mother had always said. She'd hated where they lived. “My mum's in the kitchen. She's dead.”

Last name?

“Mulvanney.”

The cat's white fur gleamed in the newly risen sun. The spiderweb was spangled with diamond-dew, and as Tess tried to answer the operator's questions the web broke and the spider — it was a tiny brown spider — hung on a silver thread. The cat's tail twitched. The operator was saying they must live in a certain
place
in the moor. A village? And what was their telephone number?

“Clerihew Marsh,” said Tess, looking down at the dial. She told the operator the number there. “She's in the kitchen and she won't get up. I thought she was playing. Are you going to call the hospital and will the ambulance come?”

The operator was very nice and said, Yes, of course. She told Tess maybe her mum wasn't dead at all, just sick, and
they'd get the doctor. The operator told her very clearly
not
to hang up, that she'd call someone and get back to Tess straightaway.

Silence again. The operator was being very nice, but the operator hadn't been in the kitchen and didn't understand. The cat wore a halo of light, and the spider was repairing its web with infinite patience.

When Tess heard the operator's voice again, she tried to explain: “I thought she was playing with my fingerpaints. We have paints at school. I thought she got the red pot.” The operator asked her what she meant. “There's red all over the kitchen. She's cut. It's blood. It's on her dress and in her hair.”

Quickly, the operator told her again not to hang up, that she had to call someone else. Soon she was back and talking to Tess in a soothing voice about things like school. Yes, said Tess, she went to school. They called it babies' school, but she wasn't a baby. She was five years old. She told the operator about her teacher, who looked like a toad. They talked a long time and Tess figured out why the operators hardly ever answered. They were talking to people.

The cat yawned and jumped from the table, and Tess knew it wanted its breakfast and would wander into the kitchen. “I've got to hang up. I don't want Sandy — that's our cat — to go into the kitchen.” Tess hung up.

 • • • 

Rose Mulvanney lay beneath the kitchen table, her legs jackknifed, her dress blood-besotted. Blood had splattered the kitchen floor, the white daub walls, and even the low, dark beam of the ceiling.

Teresa Mulvanney wondered how it had got up there. She shook and shook her head, forgetting everything as her mind drifted and filmed over. She closed her eyes and scratched her elbows. What must be happening was that she was having one of her “bad” nights; she was dreaming. It must all be paint, after all, or tomato ketchup. Her mother, Rose, had
said that in films they used that. Tess, with her eyes still closed, told her mother it was all right and she could get up now. It was a game and it was all a dream anyway. Even the
brr
-ing of the telephone and the far-off double note that made her think of ambulances came as dark figures in fog. She began to hum a song that Rose Mulvanney used to sing when Teresa was a baby.

She forgot to feed the cat.

 • • • 

When Detective Inspector Nicholson and Sergeant Brian Macalvie of the Devon-Cornwall constabulary got to the small cottage in Clerihew Marsh, Teresa Mulvanney was humming and writing her name on the white wall in her mother's blood.

 • • • 

Brian Macalvie had never seen anything like it and he never forgot it. At this time he was twenty-three years old and was generally thought to be the best CID man in the whole Devon-Cornwall constabulary. It was an opinion held by practically everyone, even Macalvie's enemies — also practically everyone. He was not fond of taking orders; he was always talking about his Scots-Irish-American ancestry and dying to get out of England; he was always getting promoted.

He worked on the murder of Rose Mulvanney even after the file had been officially closed. Three months after the Mulvanney murder, they'd arrested (according to Macalvie) the wrong man — a young medical student who lived in Clerihew Marsh and went to Exeter University. He'd been arrested on flimsy, circumstantial evidence — he'd had a heavy crush on Rose Mulvanney, fifteen years older, and, being a medical student, he knew how to use a knife. The motive was unrequited love; the evidence (said Macalvie), Nil.

During the same period, he moved in on six other cases that he felt the department was snailing along on and solved
those, so that it was difficult for the divisional commander to tell him to get off the Mulvanney case. Macalvie was his own police force. When he walked into the lab, the pathologists and technicians clung to their microscopes. It was Macalvie's contention their fingerprint expert couldn't find a bootprint on a hospital sheet. If it came down to it, the whole department couldn't find a Rolls-Royce if it was parked in front of the Moorcombe headquarters on Christmas Day.

Thus when the divisional commander told him to get off the Mulvanney case, that the case was closed, Macalvie dropped his ID on the table and said, “Macalvie, six; Devon-Cornwall, Nil.” He wasn't halfway across the room before his superior's tone changed. As long as Macalvie didn't let the Mulvanney business interfere with his other duties . . .

“Tell that to Sam Waterhouse,” said Macalvie, and walked out.

 • • • 

Sam Waterhouse was the medical student who had been sent to Dartmoor prison. It was a life sentence with the possibility of parole, since there were no prior convictions and the murder of Rose Mulvanney was judged a
crime passionel.

Macalvie had not hesitated to let the Devon-Cornwall constabulary feel the full weight of his personal displeasure. They had ruined the kid's life and, possibly, a brilliant career.

And if there was one person who knew about brilliant careers, it was Brian Macalvie.

 • • • 

The tiny hamlet of Clerihew Marsh was nothing more than a few fat cottages huddled on either side of a curving road, giving the distorted image of dwellings reflected in a pier glass or a fun-house mirror. After the first clump of houses, so stuck together they looked as if they shared the same thatched roof, the cottages straggled a little, like a sleeve unraveling. The Mulvanney cottage was the last in the fringe. It sat by itself, windows on every side, quite visible to anyone passing.

But apparently no one had been when Rose Mulvanney was being cut with a knife. No one had seen anyone go in or out. No one had seen any strangers about. No one had heard anything. No one who knew him believed Sam Waterhouse could do such a thing.

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