The deeper the express train travelled into the tunnel the clearer became the woman's reflection in the window, giving Arthur Mott a chance to stare without her knowing. Now, instead of occasional glimpses of her profile, he could see the whole of her face. Short, wiry hair curved around her ears like dappled muffs; dark hair, so flecked with grey it reminded him of pewter. He guessed her wistful expression belied a sunny disposition, for he detected the hint of a smile dallying at her lips. The pronounced cheek-bones attracted him. They made her almond-shaped eyes seem so submerged that he felt, if she turned to look at him, he would drown in the abyss of their dark beauty.
The notion of being captured in an all-embracing glance made him fidget and he rocked slightly on his seat. Forward and back. Soon, the agitation filled his head, turmoil he thought had long ago subsided. He was compelled to suppress it with a system of deep-breathing. As he inhaled, he ran his fingers along the plastic armrest, counting to ten. With every exhalation he scratched his chewed nails on the jagged edges of sundry burns, willfully accomplished with cigarettes, no doubt, by drunken barbarians. Mother wouldn't have liked that, he thought, recalling what a stickler she was for neatness, how she would toss into the bin anything marred by cuts or stains.
Now that he had a chance to study the woman, he saw that the skin on her throat was crinkly, like crepe, like his mother's, and he longed to touch her neck to see if it felt the same. There was an unusual fragrance in the compartment, of spicy perfume mingled with the polluted smell of soiled upholstery. Neither pleasant nor repulsive, simply unusual.
Her thinness intrigued him. How could a modern woman look so haggard when the whole nation was bordering on the obese? Arthur laced his nicotine-stained fingers, remembering his mother's bulk, her flesh hanging over him at night, her protruding eyes devouring his nakedness. He shuddered, as he had shuddered throughout his childhood.
Once again daylight entered the carriage. Fields rushed by, measures of green allocated for farming stock, an occasional house stowed aimlessly in the middle. Shouts could be heard in the next carriage, choruses adored by football supporters, some kind of convoluted vocal meandering punctuated with cries of ‘three-one, three-one’ which meant nothing to Arthur. He wasn’t a sporting man.
As if weary of the view, the woman changed her pose, languidly shuffling round until she faced him, her cream blouse taught against diminutive breasts. Her eyes were moist and her lips trembled slightly, drawing his notice to the lines on her upper lip. A pity the lurking smile had disappeared. He would have liked to see it go. Sweet anticipation set him rocking again; back and forth, a shade faster than before, foreseeing an exhilarating adventure, when she would be as putty in his hands.
Suddenly, the door slid open and a fat-faced man, carting a battered brown suitcase and a bundle of newspapers, barged in like a squall of blubber. Another example of modern living. Without asking if the seat was reserved, he dropped the bundle on the table adjacent to Arthur's green trilby and slung the case on the overhead rack. 'Teenagers make me sick,' he said to no-one in particular, 'the way they behave in public.'
Having secured the case, he flopped on the seat opposite Arthur, puffing out his cheeks with the exertion. 'I've been sharing a compartment with the Liverpool brigade,' he told Arthur, who was not at all interested. 'Had to leave 'em to it. Couldn't stand the noise. Comes to something when a body can't enjoy a train journey in peace.'
Agitatedly plucking the front of his fawn jersey, Arthur Mott eyed the woman wondering if the moment of contact was lost.
It brought a small, involuntary cry to Leonora's lips
And she knew she’d been right to be afraid
Leonora Deloitte rummaged inside a lizard-skin bag, searching for her wallet and the small notepad contained therein. She had thought of passing the big man a note concerning that measly little man who had stared constantly since they joined the train. She was used to being goggled at by men and enjoyed the experience, for it boosted her sometimes deflated ego, but this man was not a typical voyeur. When he stared it was like being mentally dissected.
She unzipped the inner compartment and flicked through the papers there, but she had no joy. The wallet, containing money and credit cards, was missing. She could only think she must have left it at her daughter's. She leaned back, wondering what on earth she was going to do, so absorbed with her dilemma she failed to adjust the black skirt that had ridden up.
'I'm going to Birmingham-on-sea,' said the rotund man. 'Though I confess I have no bucket or spade. Or a red and white scarf, for that matter.'
This smattering of humour went some way to persuading Leonora that he was an approachable individual who might help solve her predicament. Not that she would relish asking a perfect stranger for a loan, yet she couldn't see any alternative. She could hardly walk from Birmingham to Solihull. Hesitantly she smiled at him and the man promptly inclined towards her, stretching out his arm. 'Godfrey's the name, Ma'am. Godfrey Hastings. You going far?'
'Birmingham,' said Leonora.
'Well, isn't that just dandy. My luck must be in.'
In his corner, the scrawny little man scowled. His hands twitched in his lap, busy fingers stretching and curling as if he was squeezing an invisible object. It brought a small, involuntary cry to Leonora's lips and she knew she had been right to be afraid. Collectively, the two men arched their heads, but only Godfrey Hastings spoke.
'Whatever is it, Ma'am,' he enquired.
Leonora opened her mouth to express her fear but, feeling inanely foolish, she hastily closed it. She felt rather testy, hating to feel intimidated, but the horror of being thought ridiculous prevented her from launching into an unjustified dialogue of complaint. Instead, as calmly as she could, she announced the loss of her wallet, and was relieved to see a token of concern remove the disagreeable glower from the man's contemptible face.
Even the brief glimpse of pale thigh that had so excited Arthur was powerless to squash his loathing for Godfrey Hastings. He had completely wrecked his intentions. If he had an appropriate weapon he might stab him through the heart. In the few minutes since he arrived he had not only gained the woman's trust, he had destroyed the possibility of seduction. Unless he could outwit him his prospects would be dashed. An offer of cash to the lady would stand him in good stead but he only had a paltry sum in his breast pocket, a sum estimated by the authorities as sufficient for his needs until he could fend for himself. He had let loose a hollow laugh when they told him that and had been warned to behave. Well, he would cope; always had and always would. The only quandary he had was how to manipulate the woman.
He liked the notion of offering funds, even falsely, but recognized the infeasibility of such a suggestion, reluctantly acknowledging the numerous unwanted problems it would pose. Anyway, to do that he would have to find his voice. He always became incoherent when he was nervous. Words would jumble together in his mouth and emerge in the wrong order. It was the reason he had not engaged the Leonora in conversation. Leonora. As delightful a name as any he'd come across. Most of the casualties in his life had ordinary names: Margaret, Sylvia, and Mary. Those were the three he commemorated most in darker moments, each one thin as a rake, with eyes like pools. Like Leonora. Arthur covered his mouth with his hand to hide the excessive salivation.
'You mustn't worry, my dear,' Godfrey said. 'I'll see you're all right for ready cash. Leave everything to me.' He was helping Leonora return her haphazardly strewn belongings to her bag.
Arthur beheld a gold-coloured lipstick case rolling between a plastic cup and some cellophane biscuit wrappings. He was fascinated by it, for Leonora's lips were unadorned and he could not imagine her defacing them with tawdry paint. On the other hand, removing it could prove to be a lot more stimulating.
'Oh, dear,' exclaimed Leonora. 'I've just remembered where I left it.'
At that point Godfrey Hastings espied the lurching lipstick and retrieved it, presenting it to Leonora as if it was a nugget of real gold. Arthur's resentment rose up like bile when he saw the gratitude on her face.
'Thank you so much, Godfrey,' she said in her low, rich voice, its contralto timbre giving the impression that she was or had been a vocalist.
Arthur was captivated by it. He mused on the possibility that her screams would be musical and therefore so much nicer than the terror-stricken sort he’d grown used to hearing. He momentarily closed his eyes the better to imagine it.
Leonora dropped the lipstick inside the handbag and snapped it shut, offering the explanation almost apologetically, that she had placed the wallet by the mantel clock at her daughter's house while she looked for the ticket for the train. She had been distracted by her grand-daughter insisting she be picked up and nursed. In the event, she had forgotten it.
'Well, there you are,' Godfrey said. 'All's well that ends well.'
Godfrey fixed his probing sights on Arthur but swiftly re-established his concentration on Leonora. Arthur was excused the confusion of replying. In those few seconds, as he shrank from the fleeting inspection, it struck him that the man was familiar. But recall eluded him and he guessed he was mistaken.
Godfrey took a visiting card from the inner pocket of his navy suit. 'I'll withdraw enough cash to tide you over,' he said, handing the card to Leonora. 'There's my address and telephone number. I'll take my reward in kind.' He chortled and gripped Leonora's hand. She delivered a sumptuous giggle as if she was a teenager on a first romantic date.
She did, after all, live entirely alone.
Not even a dog to defend her
For the rest of the journey Arthur was besieged by despondency as Leonora Deloitte chattered about the holiday she'd had with her daughter and son-in-law, five grandchildren and a dog. She didn’t care for the dog, she said, would never have one herself, although she admitted a pet was good for youngsters. Leonora talked exclusively to Godfrey as if Arthur was but a travelling ghost. Though she did occasionally glance in his direction, at his hands, she did not once raise her eyes to his. He spent much of the time trying to visualize how her lips would look when painted. Older lips looked grotesque when highly coloured. On her scarlet might be appealing.
He meddled with the square card he'd rescued from the floor, thrilled that he'd had the sense to pocket it instead of handing it over. Surreptitiously, he glanced at it, scanning an address in Hermitage Road. Residence of Deloitte, it grandly proclaimed, in gold.
'Five!' exclaimed Godfrey. 'You don't look old enough to have five grandchildren.'
Arthur silently agreed. Though the outward signs were that Leonora Deloitte was old enough, she possessed a genteel manner that defied age. It showed in those extraordinary dark eyes. Such a contrast to his mother.
The disclosure that she was going home to an empty house inspired Godfrey to ask if she was a widow. Leonora's eyes misted again when she conceded that she had been alone for twenty years. Exactly the length of time since Arthur lost his mother. He wanted to tell her that. But he couldn't, his mouth would never manage the words. In any case, her attention was rooted to the comically stout intruder who, for all his portliness, knew how to hook a woman with spontaneous chitchat.
Leonora peered through the window. She had not liked that last, lengthy tunnel. She had imagined the seedy little man making a grab for her, his heavily veined, dirty hands seizing her by the throat. But Godfrey's hand brushing hers had reassured her that she was safe.
Arthur stood up, lurching as the swaying train arrived at their destination. He picked up his hat and positioned it on his head. Having no luggage to collect, he just stood there waiting for the train to stop.
'Travelling light, are you?' boomed Godfrey.
Arthur nodded and looked away, finalising his strategy. He would leave the train first, linger on the platform until they passed. Then he would follow. Godfrey Hastings couldn’t protect her all day … and she did, after all, live entirely alone. Not even a dog to defend her.
'Here, Leonora, let me help you with your coat,' Godfrey said, readily taking up the crimson garment. Another whiff of spicy fragrance was released as he held it behind her like a matador's cape.
'Birmingham New Street,' came the guard's announcement. 'Please be careful bridging the gap between the platform and the train.'
By the time Godfrey and Leonora left the train, Arthur was studying the contents of the vending machine. He selected a chocolate snack bar and inserted coins in the appropriate slot. He could have pretended to be procuring something, but he was by now extremely hungry. It had been hours since he had a proper meal and the arrowroot biscuits he'd eaten on the train had made no inroads into his hunger. Clutching the chocolate, he leaned on the machine and watched Leonora teetering on silly stilettos beside her escort. Hurriedly, which suited Arthur's schedule. The sooner her monetary crisis was sorted, the sooner she would be free to travel home. Gleefully, Arthur tore the wrapper from the snack bar. The blue paper fluttered down to the dusty platform. Like a child, he stuffed the whole bar in his mouth … the chocolate would run down his chin and his mother would be furious if she could see. At that moment he didn't care. He had other things on his mind.
Ahead, at the entrance to the escalator, he saw Leonora sailing through, her hand resting lightly on Godfrey's arm. A beautiful slut, thought Arthur, chomping the snack bar as he moved quickly in the same direction. There must have been a dozen people between him and them yet he could easily pick them out by her red coat and his fair hair. Arthur gripped the rail as the escalator glided steadily upwards. He almost lost them in the station's main precinct when a crowd of high-spirited football supporters surrounded him, claret and blue scarves waving like streamers as they jostled for a place at the exit. Arthur panicked, thinking his plan had been foiled, but then he saw the red coat half-way up a second ascending escalator. Holding his hat in place, he ran, jubilantly, towards the subsequent bank of moving stairs.
She looked exquisite, standing there.
Mother would have adored her
One eye on Arthur Mott, Godfrey withdrew the money from the machine in the wall. He had known who he was as soon as he saw him board the train. He had been partly responsible for the man's incarceration after the dreadful murder of the prostitute, Patsy Musewell, in Small Heath Park. The morning papers had reported the news of Arthur's release only that morning: Ex-Banker's Sentence at an End. The report had gone on to describe Arthur Mott as formerly a smart intellectual, held in great esteem by his profession until his mother died and the man slipped into decline. Typical of newspapers to publish the man's antecedents before he was barely out of Walton Jail. Godfrey had resolved that while he was on the train he would watch him like a hawk and that was how he came to locate him sharing a carriage with one female occupant. Godfrey had been mighty troubled when he glimpsed the rapt look on his face. That's why he barged in like he did.
Leonora's polite cough stemmed his thinking and he turned to see her noting the time by her watch. Bygone police practices had driven her predicament completely from his mind. Noticing her anxiousness, he wondered again about the absurdity of giving money to a complete stranger. He'd have been stripped of his stripes if he'd been so daft in the old days. But he had a good feeling about Leonora. He trusted her. And he liked her a lot.
Movements beyond caught his eye. Two constables on the prowl, one redoubtable individual, bearing the hallmark of a long-serving copper, the other innocent and fresh: a slight-framed, bit-of a-kid rookie, just right for tackling the inhuman Arthur Mott should the need arise. 'Excuse me a tick, Leonora,' he said. 'There's a man over there I must have a word with. Will you wait for me here? And don't fret about getting home. I'll order a taxi.' Maintaining covert surveillance on Arthur, who was hiding behind a picture stall, naively believing he couldn't be seen, Godfrey scurried towards the two coppers.
Arthur laughed, rejoicing over his success. His plan had worked. Leonora was alone, scanning her watch and peering anxiously after the Hastings man. He wanted to yell at her that she had seen the last of him. The last of anybody, come to that. Very soon. Why didn't she walk away, he asked himself, wondering if he ought to make his presence known. But he preferred the concept of tailing her. The element of surprise was more exciting. She looked exquisite, standing there. Mother would have adored her. She liked thin women, being grossly fat herself, and often urged him to marry one. He might have, if he hadn't grown accustomed to mother's corpulence shrouding him in sleep, her podgy hands clutching him, thick lips beseeching his dormant parts to wake. Yes, she liked thin women, but thin women didn't like her, and it annoyed him that his mother's desires were unfulfilled; accordingly, after her death, by a process of selective slaughter, he had satisfied her needs.
Hoping her loitering would not be misinterpreted by staff inside the building society, Leonora stood inside the doorway. The area was dreadfully crowded. People dashed in all directions: passengers with suitcases and shoppers lugging bulky plastic bags. She could smell the dampness on people's coats as they hustled by. Rain. And she wasn't wearing a mac. A long-haired mongrel dog of indeterminate parentage paused briefly to sniff a Malteser box, then snorted as if disgusted by its emptiness before scampering on its way.
She had totally lost sight of Godfrey. She longed to get away but she had yet to make arrangements to return the cash. A black girl stopped at the cash machine, tossing her silky hair out of the way as she confidently punched in her numbers. Oh for the assurance of youth, thought Leonora, who had no aptitude for technical contraptions. Taking Godfrey's visiting card from her bag, she examined it and tried to recall exactly where Northfield was. An appreciable distance, she imagined, from Solihull, and probably the opposite direction. Nevertheless, she had his number. She could ring and quickly rectify the situation, whatever he thought of her for disappearing.
Arthur’s heartbeats were like tom-toms as he watched her advance towards the exit ramp that would take her to New Street from where, presumably, she would head towards home. Her coat bounced around her slender, though shapely calves, her hips swaying like a model's as she sashayed past the health food shop. He struggled with the disorder in his pants, recognising the need for control if he was to beget another offering for Mother. The best he'd netted to date. Why, even he could fancy her.
His courage rapidly returning, Arthur glided down the ramp and veered into New Street, his eyes fixed on the swinging red coat. And the added, useful accessory: a red scarf with white dots, half on, half off her hair. Unconsciously, he flexed his hands, tugging taut the imaginary ends, enthusiastically blessing the rain.
The crowd had moderated and he had no difficulty keeping tabs on her. She twisted round once, surveying the street. He thought she might have seen him but she was merely monitoring the traffic prior to crossing the road. Not that it mattered if she did see him, he had as much right to be here as she did, but if she saw him now that terminating jolt of bewilderment and incredulity that possessed his victims at the end would be forfeited.
After navigating a course through the queues of buses and taxis waiting at the lights, Arthur slowed almost to a halt. Ahead of him Leonora was contemplating the display in Principles' window. She looked weary. He chuckled contentedly, feeling certain it would not be long before he could administer a permanent cure.
She tried to fight the fear,
reasoning that her imagination was playing tricks
Clutching the scarf that refused to stay in place, Leonora followed the window round so that she was concealed from the road, yet her view of it was unimpeded. She had been so sure she was being watched that she needed to check it out. Then she saw that awful man from the train, staring at the site she'd just vacated, not even bothering to mask his interest. She saw him shove his hand inside his grey jacket, lift the scruffy jersey and slowly release a narrow, black leather belt until it hung by its buckle from his waist like a snake waiting to strike.
Alarm bristled like cactus spines, punching a warning at her brain. Beware. She realized she'd been spotted, the odious man was eyeing her through the window, toying with the buckle of his belt. He began to shuffle towards her, his face contorting in a hideous leer. Leonora's panic surged, swelling up like an eruption of boiling lava. She felt she would faint if she didn't get away. She tried to fight the fear, reasoning that her imagination was playing tricks, asking herself why she should feel so threatened, telling herself that nothing could happen to her in a public place. She attempted to pull herself together, relating her consternation to the man's obvious dirty-mindedness, a factor she so abhorred. The reasoning did not work. As Arthur Mott drew near, she retreated until her backside touched the frame of the shop door. She jumped at the unexpected contact. Certain she was being attacked from behind, she screamed, cries rising from the pit of her stomach like a welling spring and emerging from her throat like a salvo of ear-piercing howls.
Some passers-by gawked inquiringly, others swerved sharply away. No-one came to her aid.
Leonora's feet were welded to the ground, her knuckles white as she gripped the door handle. He was only yards away, his colourless face distorted, hooked nose almost meeting twisted mouth, pupils enlarged with impatience. As if witnessing something in a dream, Leonora saw him release the belt from the waistband of his trousers. She became mesmerized by a snag in the material running from his fly to his left hand pocket. A drawn thread, looped in places. She heard children laughing in the distance, but couldn't tear her gaze away. The belt swung like a pendulum as he neared.
A youngster begged his mother to look at the strange man with a strap in his hand. He was sharply ordered to come away.
The incident distracted Leonora. Her common sense returned. Shaking her head, she paced back, intending to demand the use of the shop's phone. But she didn’t need it. There was a sudden tableau of flying bodies. Godfrey Hastings and a boyish policeman, brandishing a truncheon, had entered like mounties in a movie, overpowering Arthur and pinning him to the slippery ground.
Godfrey didn’t shout, he merely said, 'Got you, Arthur Mott,' as he hauled the puny man to his feet, thrusting him at the young officer, who quick as lightning slapped handcuffs on the man's wrist. Arthur squealed like stuck pig as he struggled within the policeman's grasp. Leonora trembled, her relief so heartfelt she was sapped of all her strength.
Later, in a coffee shop, sheltered from the world and its psychopaths, Godfrey's hand covering hers, Leonora listened to Godfrey outlining Arthur Mott's criminal history, though he benevolently apportioned blame to Arthur's mother: an overweight, oversexed woman with cross-grained chromosomes. According to Godfrey, Arthur had no spunk. His pitiful attempts to stand up to his mother resulted in physical and mental bruising until, in the end, her terrible dominance and his frantic desire to please, drove him to kill, believing the mutilation of the women she had so hankered after in life would indulge her in death.
Leonora quaked, remembering the earnest scrutiny on the train, those rheumy eyes, the twitching hands and fingers that curled, guessing he had decided to kill her. It would have been so easy to overpower her and wrap his hands around her throat. The reality of the situation eluded her as she imagined how easily he could have overpowered her when she was hedged in that doorway. No-one would have taken any heed. Others had been killed in broad daylight. She shook as the horror recurred of that awful, insane moment when she was sure she was going to die. It took a while for her mind to clear and to realise that such a thing couldn’t happen in a public place.
'Now, dear lady,' Godfrey said, 'There's no need to be scared any more. It's been quite a day, but there have been good bits. Certainly there were good bits for me. Meeting you, Leonora, was like emerging from a dark cave onto a sunny beach and basking in the warmth.'
Leonora blushed as she regarded him, loving his style and liking what she saw, admiring the friendly blue eyes and the blonde lashes that fanned his cheeks when he blinked. Was it possible they had only met that day? The image of Arthur Mott slowly crumbled as the prospect of running her fingers through the tight spirals of hair filled her soul, the need to unwind one and watch it spring back into place so essential it was like a pleasant pain. She was comfortable in his company; she thought she could be snug and protected in his bountiful arms. 'I'll try to put the bad bits behind me, Godfrey,' she said.
Godfrey chucked her under the chin and murmured affectionately, 'That's my girl.'
Composed and unemotional, Arthur Mott waited in the interview room. So what if his scheme had been thwarted, it was only a temporary setback. The police could interrogate him all they liked, but they couldn't detain him for long without charging him, and they couldn't do that because he hadn’t committed a crime. Watching a woman didn’t constitute an offence, not when it was a one-off incident. Certain of early liberation, Arthur sat upright on the wooden chair and stared at the officer by the door. It was only a matter of time before he could continue his quest. Go for the kill. He palmed the white card and removed it from his pocket, keeping it below the level of the table so the supervising copper wouldn’t see. He read the gold print again: Hermitage Road, Solihull. Residence of Deloitte, where, by Leonora's own admission, she lived entirely alone. Not even a dog to defend her.