An excerpt from Peter Lovesey’s
collection of short stories
Reader, I Buried Them
ON SALE NOW
Sorry, darling! I mean to have my bath and that’s the end of it!” With a giggle and a swift movement of her right hand, Melanie Lloyd closed the sliding door of her bathroom. The catch fastened automatically with a reassuring click. Her husband, William, frustrated on the other side, had installed the gadget himself. “None of your old-fashioned bolts or keys for us,” he had announced, demonstrating it a week before the wedding. “The door secures itself when you slide it across from the inside. You can move it with one finger, you see, but once closed, it’s as safe as your money in the bank.”
She felt between her shoulders for the tab of her zip. William could wait for her. Sit in bed and wait while she had a leisurely bath. What was the purpose of a luxurious modern bathroom if not to enjoy a bath at one’s leisure? William, after all, had spent weeks before the wedding modernising it. “Everything but asses’ milk,” he had joked. “Mixer taps, spray attachment, separate shower, bidet, heated towel rails and built-in cupboards. You shall bathe like a queen, my love. Like a queen.”
Queenly she had felt when she first stepped through the sliding door and saw what he had prepared for her. It was all there exactly as he had promised, in white and gold. All that he had promised, and more. Ceramic mosaic tiles. Concealed lighting. Steam-proof mirrors. And the floor— wantonly impractical!—carpeted in white, with a white fur rug beside the bath. There was also a chair, an elegant antique chair, over which he had draped a full-length lace negligee. “Shameless Victoriana,” he had whispered. “Quite out of keeping with contemporary design, but I’m incurably sentimental.” Then he had kissed her.
In that meeting of lips she had shed her last doubts about William, those small nagging uncertainties that would probably never have troubled her if Daddy had not kept on so. “I’m old-fashioned, I know, Melanie, but it seems to me an extraordinarily short engagement. You feel that you know him, I’ve no doubt, but he’s met your mother and me only once—and that was by accident. The fellow seemed downright evasive when I questioned him about his background. It’s an awkward thing to do, asking a man things like that when he’s damned near as old as you are, but, hang it, it’s a father’s right to know the circumstances of the man who proposes marrying his daughter, even if he is past fifty. Oh, I’ve nothing against his age; there are plenty of successful marriages on record between young women and older men. Nothing we could do to stop you, or would. You’re over twenty-one and old enough to decide such things for yourself. The point is that he knew why I was making my enquiries. I wasn’t probing his affairs from idle curiosity. I had your interests at heart, damn it. If the fellow hasn’t much behind him, I’d be obliged if he’d say so, so that I can make a decent contribution. Set you both up properly. I would, you know. I’ve never kept you short, have I? Wouldn’t see you come upon hard times for anything in the world. If only the fellow would make an honest statement . . .”
One didn’t argue with Daddy. It was no use trying to talk to him about self-respect. Every argument was always swept aside by that familiar outpouring of middle-class propriety. God, if anything drove her into William Lloyd’s arms, Daddy did!
She stepped out of the dress and hung it on one of the hooks provided on the wall of the shower compartment. Before removing her slip, she closed the venetian blind; not that she was excessively modest, nor, for that matter, that she imagined her new neighbours in Bismarck Road were the sort who looked up at bathroom windows. The plain fact was that she was used to frosted glass. When she and William had first looked over the house—it seemed years ago, but it could only have been last April—the windows, more than anything else, had given her that feeling of unease. There were several in the house—they had been common enough in Victorian times when the house was built—small oblong frames of glass with frostwork designs and narrow stained-glass borders in deep red and blue. They would haveto come out, she had decided at once, if William insisted on living there. They seemed so out of keeping, vaguely ecclesiastical, splendid in a chapel or an undertaker’s office, but not in her new home. William agreed at once to take them out—he seemed so determined to buy that one house. “You won’t recognise the place when I’ve done it up. I’ll put a picture window in the bathroom. The old frames need to come out anyway. The wood’s half rotten outside.” So the old windows went and the picture window, a large single sheet of glass, replaced them. “Don’t worry about ventilation,” William assured her. “There’s an extractor fan built in above the cabinet there.” He had thought of everything.
Except frosted glass. She would have felt more comfortable behind frosted glass. But it wasn’t contemporary, she supposed. William hadn’t consulted her, anyway. He seemed to know about these things. And there were the venetian blinds, pretty plastic things, so much more attractive than the old brown pelmet they replaced.
She fitted the plug and ran the water. Hot and cold came together from a lion’s-head tap; you blended the water by operating a lever. Once you were in the bath you could control the intake of water with your foot, using a push-button mechanism. What would the first occupants of 14 Bismarck Road, eighty years ago, have thought of that?
Melanie reviewed the array of ornamental bottles on the shelf above the taps. Salts, oils, crystals and foam baths were prodigally provided. She selected an expensive bath oil and upended the bottle, watching the green liquid dispersed by the cascading water. Its musky fragrance was borne up on spirals of steam. How odd that William should provide all this and seem unwilling for her to use it! Each evening since Monday, when they had returned from the honeymoon, she had suggested she might take a bath and he had found some pretext for discouraging her. It didn’t matter that much, of course. At the hotel in Herne Bay she had taken a daily bath, so she didn’t feel desperately in need of one immediately they got back. It was altogether too trivial to make an issue of, she was quite sure. If William and she had to have words sometime it wasn’t going to be about bath nights, at any rate. So she had played the part of the complaisant wife and fallen in with whatever distractions he provided.
Tonight, though, she had deliberately taken him by surprise. She had hidden nightie and book in the towel chest earlier in the day, so when she hesitated at the head of the stairs as they came to bed he was quite unprepared. You don’t go for a late-night bath empty-handed, even when your bathroom has every convenience known to the modern home designer. She was sliding the bathroom door across before he realised what had happened.
“Sorry, darling! I mean to have my bath and that’s the end of it!”
The door slid gently across on its runners and clicked, the whole movement perfectly timed, without a suspicion of haste, as neatly executed as a pass in the bullring. That was the way to handle an obstructive husband. Never mind persuasion and pleading; intelligent action was much more dignified, and infinitely more satisfying. Besides, she had waited until Friday.
She tested the water with her hand, removed her slip, took her book and plastic shower cap from the towel chest, shook her mass of flaxen hair and then imprisoned it in the cap. She turned, saw herself unexpectedly in a mirror, and pulled a comical face. If she had remembered, she would have brought in a face pack—the one thing William had overlooked when he stocked the cosmetics shelf. She wasn’t going into the bedroom to collect one now, anyway. She took off the last of her underclothes and stepped into the bath.
It was longer than the bath at home or the one in the hotel. Silly really: neither William nor she was tall, but they had installed a six-foot, six-inch bath—“Two metres, you see,” the salesman had pointed out, as though that had some bearing on their requirements. Over the years it would probably use gallons more hot water, but it was a beautiful shape, made for luxuriating in, with the back at the angle of a deckchair on the lowest notch, quite unlike the utility five-footer at home with its chipped sides and overhanging geyser that allowed you enough hot water to cover your knees and no more. William had even insisted on a sunken bath. “It will sink to four inches below floor level, but that’s the limit, I’m afraid, or we’ll see the bottom of it through the kitchen ceiling.”
Accustomed to the temperature now, she pressed the button with her toe for more hot water. There was no hurry to rise from this bath. It wouldn’t do Mr. William Lloyd any harm to wait. Not simply from pique, of course; she felt no malice towards him at all. No, there was just a certain deliciousness—a man wouldn’t understand it even if you tried to explain—in taking one’s time. Besides, it was a change, a relief, if she was honest, to enjoy an hour of solitude, a break from the new experience of being someone’s partner, accountable for every action in the day from cooking the dinner to clipping one’s toenails.
She reached for the book, one she had found on William’s bookshelf with an intriguing title, Murder Is Methodical. Where better to read a thriller than in a warm bath behind locked doors? There hadn’t been much opportunity for reading in the last three weeks. Or before, for that matter, with curtains to make and bridesmaids to dress.
She turned to the first page. Disappointing. It was not detective fiction at all. Just a dreary old manual on criminology. “William Palmer, the Rugeley Poisoner” was the first chapter. She thumbed the pages absently. “Dr. Crippen: a Crime in Camden Town.” How was it that these monsters continued to exert such a fascination over people, years after their trials and executions? The pages fell open at a more whimsical title—from her present position, anyway—“George Joseph Smith: The Brides in the Bath.” Melanie smiled. That chapter ought to have a certain piquancy, particularly as one of the first place names to catch her eye was Herne Bay. Strange how often one comes across a reference to a place soon after visiting there. With some slight stirring of interest, she propped the book in the chromium soap holder that bridged the sides of the bath, dipped her arms under the water, leaned back and began to read.
George Joseph Smith had stayed in Herne Bay, but not at the New Excelsior. Wise man! If the food in 1912 was anything like the apologies for cuisine they dished up these days, he and his wife were far better off in the house they took in the High Street. But it wasn’t really a honeymoon the Smiths—or the Williamses, as they called themselves—spent at Herne Bay, because they had been married two years before and he had deserted her soon after, only to meet her again in 1912 on the prom at Weston-super-Mare. In May they had come to Herne Bay and on 8 July they made mutual wills. On 9 July, Smith purchased a new five-foot bath. Bessie, it seemed, decided to take a bath on the twelfth, a Friday. At 8 a.m. next morning a local doctor received a note: Can you come at once? I am afraid my wife is dead. On the sixteenth she was buried in a common grave and Smith returned the bath to the supplier, saying he did not require it after all. He inherited £2,500.
£2,500. That must have been worth a lot in 1912. More, almost certainly, than the £5,000 policy William had taken out on her own life. Really, when she considered it, the value of money declined so steadily that she doubted whether £5,000 would seem very much when they got it in 1995, or whenever it was. They might do better to spend the premiums now on decorating some of the rooms downstairs. Super, to have a luxury bathroom, but they would have to spend a lot to bring the other rooms up to standard. “Insurance policies are security,” William had said. “You never know when we might need it.” Well, security seemed important to him, and she could understand why. When you’d spent your childhood in an orphanage, with not a member of your family the least interested in you, security was not such a remarkable thing to strive for. So he should have his insurance—it was rather flattering, anyway, to be worth £5,000—and the rest of the house would get decorated in due course.
There was another reason for insurance which she did not much like to think about. For all his energy and good looks, William was fifty-six. When the policy matured, he would be over eighty, she fifty-two. No good trying to insure him; the premiums would be exorbitant.
For distraction, she returned to the book, and read of the death of Alice Burnham in Blackpool in 1913. Miss Burnham’s personal fortune had amounted to £140, but the resourceful George Smith had insured her life for a further £500. She had drowned in her bath a month after her wedding, on a Friday night in December. Strange, that Friday night again! Really it was exquisitely spine-chilling to be sitting in one’s bath on a Friday night reading such things, even if they had happened half a century ago. The Friday night bath, in fact, she learned as she read on, was an important part of Smith’s infamous system. Inquest and funeral were arranged before there was time to contact the relatives, even when he wrote to them on the Saturday. Alice Burnham, like Bessie Mundy, was buried in a common grave early the following week. “When they’re dead, they’re dead,” Smith had explained to his landlord.
Melanie shuddered slightly and looked up from the book. The appalling callousness of the murderer was conveyed with extraordinary vividness in that remark of his. For nearly twenty years he had exploited impressionable girls for profit, using a variety of names, marrying them, if necessary, as unconcernedly as he seduced them, and disappearing with their savings. In the early encounters, those who escaped being burdened with a child could consider themselves fortunate; his later brides were lucky if they escaped with their lives.
It was reassuring for a moment to set her eyes on the modern bathroom, its white carpet and ceramic tiles. Modern, luxurious and civilised. Smith and his pathetic brides inhabited a different world. What kind of bathroom had those poor creatures met their fates in? She had a vision of a cheap tin bath set on cold linoleum and filled from water jugs, illuminated by windows with coloured glass panels. Not so different, she mused, from the shabby room William had converted—transformed, rather—for her into this dream of a modern bathroom. Lying back in the water, she caught sight of the cornice William had repainted, highlighting the moulding with gold paint. So like him to preserve what he admired from the past and reconcile it with the strictly contemporary.
Friday night! She cupped some water in her hands and wetted her face. George Joseph Smith and his crimes had already receded enough for her to amuse herself with the thought that his system would probably work just as well today as it did in 1914. The postal service hadn’t improved much in all those years. If, like Daddy, you insisted on living without a telephone, you couldn’t get a letter in Bristol before Monday to say that your daughter had drowned in London on Friday evening.
How dreadfully morbid! More hot water with the right toe and back to the murders, quite remote now. When had Smith been tried and executed? 1915—well, her own William had been alive then, if only a baby. Perhaps it wasn’t so long. Poor William, patiently waiting for her to come to bed. It wouldn’t be fair to delay much longer. How many pages to go?
She turned to the end to see, and her eye was drawn at once to a paragraph describing the medical evidence at Smith’s trial.
The great pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury stated unequivocally that a person who fainted whilst taking a bath sitting in the ordinary position would fall against the sloping back of the bath. If water were then taken in through the mouth or nose it would have a marked stimulating effect and probably recover the person. There was no position, he contended, in which a person could easily become submerged in fainting. A person standing or kneeling might fall forward on the face and then might easily be drowned. Then, however, the body would be lying face downwards in the water. The jury already knew that all three women had been found lying on their backs, for Smith’s claim that Miss Lofty was lying on her side was nonsense in view of the size of the bath in Bismarck Road.
Bismarck Road. Melanie jerked up in the water and read the words again. Extraordinary. God, how horrible! It couldn’t possibly be. She snatched up the book and turned back the pages, careless of her wet hands. There it was again!
Margaret made her will and bequeathed everything, nineteen pounds (but he had insured her life for £700), to her husband. Back at Bismarck Road, Highgate, a bath was installed that Friday night. Soon after 7:30 the landlady, who was ironing in her kitchen, heard splashes from upstairs and a sound which might have been wet hands being drawn downthe side of the bath. Then there was a sigh. Shortly after, she was jolted by the sound of her own harmonium in the sitting room. Mr. John Lloyd, alias George Joseph Smith, was playing “Nearer, my God, to Thee.”
Mr. John Lloyd. Mr. John Lloyd. That name. Was it possible? William had said he knew nothing of his parents. He had grown up in the orphanage. A foundling, he said, with nothing but a scrap of paper bearing his name; abandoned, apparently, by his mother in the summer of 1915. The summer, Melanie now realised, of the trial of George Joseph Smith, alias John Lloyd, the deceiver and murderer of women. It was too fantastic to contemplate. Too awful
. . . An unhappy coincidence. She refused to believe it.
But William—what if he believed it? Rightly or wrongly believed himself the son of a murderer? Might that belief have affected his mind, become a fixation, a dreadful, morbid urge to relive George Joseph Smith’s crimes? It would explain all those coincidences: the honeymoon in Herne Bay; the insurance policy; the house in Bismarck Road; the new bath. Yet he had tried to keep her from having a bath, barred the way, as if unable to face the last stage of the ritual. And tonight she had tricked him and she was there, a bride in the bath. And it was Friday.
Melanie’s book fell in the water and she sank against the back of the bath and fainted. An hour later, her husband, having repeatedly called her name from outside the bathroom, broke through the sliding door and found her. That, at any rate, was the account William Lloyd gave of it at the inquest. She had fainted. Accidental death. A pity Sir Bernard Spilsbury could not have been in court to demonstrate that it was impossible. Even in a two-metre bath.