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Queue for Exit

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The hair was grey, though memory painted it dark.  The set of the eyes was familiar, as was the turn of the mouth.  It was only in passing that Grant saw the man waiting patiently; but, as he walked past the box office to present his ticket to the usher, the puzzle of identity fretted him.  His memory for faces was notable, not to mention a professional asset.  Yet, he could not place the fellow.

It was the opening night of Macbeth.  With Marta Hallard as Lady Macbeth and Ralph Richardson in the title role, the only reason Grant might have missed the performance would have been professional commitment; and the case in Yorkshire had, fortunately, wound up three days earlier.  He had made his report to Superintendant Branson (Bryce’s replacement), handed in the paperwork, and spoken to the Crown about his evidence in the Evers case, which was to come to trial the following week.  That evening, therefore, his time was his own.

Before the curtain went up, he fretted a little over the mystery of the man in the queue.  However, his attention then was taken by the Scottish play.  Nor did he catch sight of the dark familiar stranger seated in the theatre, nor did he spot him in the bar at intermission; so the matter slipped his mind entirely.  Macbeth met his fate; Marta received her due applause and three bouquets; the house lights came up; and Grant walked the crowded narrow stairs down to the cool night air.  However, unlike those who hurried for the last train, he was privileged to turn instead down the alley to the stage entrance.  Inside, he congratulated Marta, and later escorted to her a celebratory party at Toby Tullis’s London flat.  There he left her talking to Lavinia Fitch, and circulated the room, chatting irrelevance with the literati.  Then he caught sudden sight of Lee Searle chatting with Liz Whitmore.  And froze.

It was not the conversation itself.  Perversely, given almost recent history, the two women actually had much in common.  They had always got on.  Nor was it the sight of Searle out in public:  she was regularly at parties; and Grant had not only seen but spoken to her often enough.  Oddly, she seemed to hold him no grudge for the scandal after the revelation that “Leslie Searle” was actually a woman, not even though it had wrecked his—or her—American career.  McCarthy had a lot to answer for in Grant’s opinion; but the London entertainment world had taken it more or less in stride.  Indeed, the publicity shots for Marta’s Macbeth had been taken by an only slightly more feminine Leslie, though her paintings sold under “Lee”.

“Jerry Lamont!”  He only realized he’d said it aloud when someone on his right said, “What?”

Grant turned and saw Marta.  “I think it was before we met,” he said conversationally.  “Do you remember Ray Marcable?  Or, more accurately—”  (for she had in her time been famous, even if her career had long since been in the States)  “—her mother’s trial for murder.”

“My God, Alan!  That was years ago!  I was still in rep.”  Still, it took only a split second for Marta to make the connection.  “Was that the man who didn’t do it?”

“Yes. I saw him today—I’m sure it was him—outside the theatre before your performance.”

“Well,” said Marta dryly, “I suppose I should be glad no one was stabbed this time.”

Shortly after that, Grant took his leave of Toby Tullis, avoided Serge Ratoff (who still could not admit that he hadn’t a chance of getting the impresario back), pressed Lavinia Fitch’s proffered palm, and gave Walt Whitmore a hearty handshake.  He escorted Marta back to her flat, was invited in for a nightcap, and accepted a black coffee instead.  Marta was, in his opinion, one of the few women in England who could make a decent cup of coffee; and, after nursing a most improbable cocktail for far too long, Grant felt he could do with something palatable.

“So,” said Marta, stirring her own cup, “the man in the queue.  That was a nine days’ wonder.  Were you the one who hied up to Scotland to arrest him, or were you the one who cleared him?”

“Both,” said Grant succinctly.

As Marta was by then raising the cup to her lips, she merely looked her query.

“I believed his story.”  Grant smiled slightly, a bit embarrassed.  “Yes, I know.  What copper takes the word of a villain?  Still, incredible though it was—and believe me, it was!—I was sure of the truth of pretty well everything he told me in the train as we came up to London.”

“Oh, I believe you,” said Marta, putting her cup down.  “Did he have cheekbones?  You do have a type.”

“I what?” Grant said incredulously.

“Oh, darling…!”  Marta laughed.  “How long have I known you?  You are definitely susceptible to a sob story told you by a handsome young man.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”  Grant’s back was as stiff as his tone.

“Of course you do.  What does Lamont look like?  Not today, but back then:  what did he look like then?  I would lay odds he was tall, dark, and handsome.  Or maybe fair:  that doesn’t seem to make a difference to you.  Looks do, though.”  Grant was stunned, but Marta ignored his expression and went on merrily, “And I remember—oh, that was years ago, too—the chap who didn’t kill Christine Clay.  I saw his picture in the papers, you know:  the whole of England did.  Even Lee Searle:  you were so certain she hadn’t killed herself, weren’t you?  She made a very handsome young man.  Beautiful cheekbones.”

“Flair.”  It came out half-strangled; but it was a good response, Grant thought.  It was a word he had heard, all too often, from his colleagues at the Yard.  They did not mean it as a compliment:  indeed, on the rare occasions when he mulled his failure to achieve higher rank in his career, he had invariably concluded that, on some level, his superiors did not trust his judgment even when it was borne out.  (And perhaps especially when it was borne out.  The occasional mistake is only human.  Flair can be a pain in the neck.)

“Oh, you can call it ‘flair’ if you like,” Marta nodded.  “But you do definitely have a type, Alan.”

“I’m not sure what you’re implying.”

“All prickly,” she said thoughtfully.  “Like a hedgehog.  You do know that’s a defense?”  She considered him for a long moment.  “Well, I’m not going to roast you in clay.  You’re quite safe here, Alan.  You can uncurl.”  And after another moment, “Do finish your coffee before it gets cold.”

Grant looked down at his cup, sitting forgotten on its saucer.  There’d been women—starting, long ago, with his cousin Laura, but others since.  He’d been besotted for a time, each time, with their beauty and intelligence and charm; and each infatuation had ended, sooner rather than later.  Most had married happily, but always other men.  He could bring them up, name by name, to counter whatever it was Marta had to be thinking.  But … The lady doth protest too much, as Shakespeare put it.  At least she had had the decency not to quote the line.

He chewed his lip for a moment, glanced up at Marta (who simply smiled enigmatically), and drank his coffee down in a single bitter gulp.