The People and the Place
Friday 25 OctoberFriday 1 November
On Friday 25 October, exactly one week before the first body was discovered at the Dupayne Museum, Adam Dalgliesh visited the museum for the first time. The visit was fortuitous, the decision impulsive and he was later to look back on that afternoon as one of life's bizarre coincidences which, although occurring more frequently than reason would expect, never fail to surprise.
He had left the Home Office building in Queen Anne's Gate at two-thirty after a long morning meeting only briefly interrupted by the usual break for brought-in sandwiches and indifferent coffee, and was walking the short distance back to his New Scotland Yard office. He was alone; that too was fortuitous. The police representation at the meeting had been strong and Dalgliesh would normally have left with the Assistant Commissioner, but one of the Under Secretaries in the Criminal Policy Department had asked him to look in at his office to discuss a query unrelated to the morning's business, and he walked unaccompanied. The meeting had produced the expected imposition of paperwork and as he cut through St. James's Park underground station into Broadway he debated whether to return to his office and risk an afternoon of interruptions or to take the papers home to his Thames-side flat and work in peace.
There had been no smoking at the meeting but the room had seemed musty with spent breath and now he took pleasure in breathing fresh air, however briefly. It was a blustery day but unseasonably mild. The bunched clouds were tumbling across a sky of translucent blue and he could have imagined that this was spring except for the autumnal sea-tang of the riversurely half imaginedand the keenness of the buffeting wind as he came out of the station.
Seconds later he saw Conrad Ackroyd standing on the kerb at the corner of Dacre Street and glancing from left to right with that air of mingled anxiety and hope typical of a man waiting to hail a taxi. Almost immediately Ackroyd saw him and came towards him, both arms outstretched, his face beaming under a wide-brimmed hat. It was an encounter Dalgliesh couldn't now avoid and had no real wish to. Few people were unwilling to see Conrad Ackroyd. His perpetual good humour, his interest in the minutiae of life, his love of gossip and above all his apparent agelessness were reassuring. He looked exactly the same now as he had when Dalgliesh and he had first met decades earlier. It was difficult to think of Ackroyd succumbing to serious illness or facing personal tragedy while the news that he had died would have seemed to his friends a reversal of the natural order. Perhaps, thought Dalgliesh, that was the secret of his popularity; he gave his friends the comforting illusion that fate was beneficent. As always, he was dressed with an endearing eccentricity. The fedora hat was worn at a rakish angle, the stout little body was encased in a plaid tweed cloak patterned in purple and green. He was the only man Dalgliesh knew who wore spats. He was wearing them now.
"Adam, lovely to see you. I wondered whether you might be in your office but I didn't like to call. Too intimidating, my dear. I'm not sure they'd let me in, or if I'd get out if they did. I've been lunching at a hotel in Petty France with my brother. He comes to London once a year and always stays there. He's a devout Roman Catholic and the hotel is convenient for Westminster Cathedral. They know him and are very tolerant."
Tolerant of what? wondered Dalgliesh. And was Ackroyd referring to the hotel, the cathedral, or both? He said, "I didn't know you had a brother, Conrad."
"I hardly know it myself, we meet so seldom. He's something of a recluse." He added, "He lives in Kidderminster," as if that fact explained all.
Excerpted from The Murder Room by P. D. James Copyright © 2003 by P.D. James. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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