Little by little the agents have taken over the world. They don't do anything, they don't make anything – they just stand there and take their cut
(Jean Giraudoux, The Madwoman of Chaillot]
whether the agency was very busy, or whether the phone was out of order, or whether someone just didn't want to speak to him, Morse couldn't know. But it was 4.30 p.m. before he finally got through, and 5 p.m. before, crawling with the other traffic, he finally pulled into the small concreted parking area of the Elite Booking Services in Abingdon Road. The establishment (as it seemed to Morse) should ideally have been a glitzy, marble-and-glass affair, with a seductive and probably topless brunette contemplating her long scarlet fingernails at reception. But things were not so.
The front room of the slightly seedy semi-detached property was so cluttered with file-cases and cardboard boxes that room could be found for only two upright chairs – for the two women proprietors: one, very large, and certainly ill-advised to be wearing a pair of wide, crimson culottes; the other rather small and flat-chested, black-stockinged and minimally skirted. Both were smoking menthol cigarettes; and judging from the high-piled ashtrays around the room, both were continuously smoking menthol cigarettes. Instinctively Morse felt that the latter (if either) would be the boss. But it was the large woman (in her late twenties?) who spoke first:
'This is Selina – my assistant. I'm Michelle – Michelle Thompson. How can I help you?'
The smile, on the rounded dimpled cheeks, seemed warm enough – attractive even – and Morse, reluctantly taking Selina's seat, asked his questions and received his answers.
The agency was the receptor, the collator, and the distributor of 'information', from all quarters of the country, which might be of interest and use to assorted businesses, ranging from TV companies to film producers, clothes designers to fashion organizers, magazine editors to well, all right, purveyors of rather less salubrious products. In its Terms and Conditions contracts, the agency dissociated itself officially, legally, completely, from any liability arising from the misuse of its services. When a particular client hired a particular model, such a booking was made with the strict proviso that any abuse of contractual obligation was a matter to be settled between model and client – never model and agency. But such trouble was rare – very rare. McBryde had been a client for about two years: a very good client, if full and prompt payment were the criterion – 80 per cent of the negotiated fee to the model; 20 per cent to the agency.
Each spring a Model Year Book was produced; there were always new models, of course, and always new clients – with new, differing interests. But one of the Terms and Conditions ('Terribly important, Inspector!') was that any information originally divulged to the agency concerning individual models, and any information subsequently learned by the agency about the activities of either clients or models, would always remain a matter of the strictest confidentiality. Must still remain so now, unless, well… But at least the inspector could understand that once trust was gone…
'And that's why you never contacted the police?'
'Exactly,' asserted Ms Thompson.
The link with the YWCA in London was very simple. The woman the police had earlier interviewed, Mrs Audrey Morris, was her sister. On the Friday before Karin had hitch-hiked to Oxford, Audrey had phoned to say that they had a young Swedish student with them who was down to her last few pennies; that the YWCA had given her a ten-pound note from the charity fund; that Audrey had written out the name, address, and telephone number of the Elite agency, and assured Michelle that the young lady was shapely, very photogenic, and probably sufficiently worldly-wise to know that a suitable session with a photographer might well work wonders for an impoverished pocket.
'You work on Sundays?'
'Sunday's a good day for sin, Inspector. And we had a client willing and waiting – if she came.'
'And she came?'
'She rang us from a call-box in Wentworth Road in North Oxford and Selina here went up in the Mini to fetch her-'
Morse could contain himself no longer. 'Bloody hell! Do you realize how much time and trouble you could have saved us? No wonder we've got so much unsolved crime when-'
'What crime exactly are we talking about, Inspector?'
Morse let it go, and asked her to continue.
But that was about it – little more to say. Selina had brought her there, to Abingdon Road: attractive, bronzed, blonde, full-figured, skimpily dressed; with a rucksack – yes, a red rucksack, and with very little else. The client from Seckham Villa had been on the look-out for such and similar offerings. A phone call. A verbal agreement: lb100 for a one-hour session – lb80 to the girl, lb20 to the agency.
'How did she get up to Park Town?'
'Dunno. She said she'd walk up to the centre – only five minutes – and get a bite to eat. Didn't seem to want much help. Independent sort of girl.'
So that was that. At least for the present.
Before he left Morse asked to look through the current Model Year Book, a thick black-covered brochure from which, fairly certainly – or from a previous edition of which – the selected photocopies found at Seckham Villa had been taken. The photographs were all in black and white, but in this edition Morse could find neither Claire nor Louisa amongst the elegant ladies in their semi-buttoned blouses and suspendered stockings. No Karin either among the Ks: just Katie, and Kelly, and Kimberly, and Kylie…
'If I can take this?'
'And I may have to bother you again, I'm afraid – with my sergeant.'
As Morse was leaving the phone rang and Selina made forward as if to take the call. But the senior partner picked up the receiver first, placed her hand over the mouthpiece, and bade her visitor farewell. Thus it was Selina the Silent who accompanied the chief inspector to the door, and who, a little to Morse's surprise, walked out with him to the Jaguar.
'There's something I want you to know,' she said suddenly. 'It's not important, I know, but…'
Unlike the Cockney ancestry of her partner's speech, the vowels here were curiously curly: the vowels of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
'I picked her up, you see. She was a lovely girl.'
'Don't you see? I wanted her, Inspector. I asked her if she would see me – afterwards. I've got plenty of money, and she'd got she'd got nothing.' A tear, soon to roll slowly down the thin cheek, had formed in the right eye of Selina, the sleeping, weeping partner of the Agency.
Morse said nothing, trusting that for once his instincts were right.
'She said "no",' continued the woman simply. 'That's what I want you to know really: she wouldn't have done… some things. She just wouldn't. She wasn't for sale – not in the way most of them are.'
Morse laid a hand on a bony shoulder, and smiled at her under-standingly, hoping that he'd assimilated whatever it was she'd wanted to tell him. He thought he had.
As he drove away, Morse could see the mightily dimensioned Michelle still busily engaged with the needs of another client. She was certainly the dominant partner in the business; but he wondered who might be the dominant partner in the bed.
He was not back in Kidlington HQ until a quarter to seven, where he learned that some directive was needed – pretty soon! – about the personnel in Wytham Woods. Was the police team there to be disbanded? On the whole Morse thought it was becoming a waste of time to maintain any further watch. But logic sometimes held less sway in Morse's mind than feeling and impulse, and so he decided that perhaps he would continue with it after all.
He drove out of the HQ car park and turned on the radio; but' he'd just missed it – blast! – and he heard the signing-off signature-tune of The Archers as he headed towards Oxford, wondering how much else he might have missed that day.
Turning right at the Banbury Road roundabout he continued down to Wolvercote and called in at the Trout, where for more than an hour he sat on the paved terrace between the sandstone walls of the inn and the low parapet overlooking the river: drinking, and thinking – thinking about the strangely tantalizing new facts he was learning about the death of the Swedish Maiden.
Lewis rang at 10.15 p.m. He was back. He'd had a reasonably successful time, he thought. Did Morse want to see him straightaway?
'Not unless you've got some extraordinary revelation to report.'
'I wouldn't go quite so far as that.'
'Leave it till the morning, then,' decided Morse.
Not that any decision Morse made that night was to be of very much relevance, since the routines of virtually every department at police HQ were to be suspended over the next three or four days. Trouble had broken out again at Broadmoor Lea, where half the inhabitants were complaining bitterly of under-policing and the other half protesting violently about police over-reaction; council workmen there were being intimidated; copy-cat criminality was being reported from neighbouring Bucks and Berks; another high-level two-day conference had been called for Thursday and Friday; the Home Secretary had stepped in to demand a full report; and the investigation of a possible crime committed perhaps a year earlier in either Blenheim Park or Wytham Woods or wherebloody-ever (as the ACC had put the case the following morning) was not going to be the number-one priority in a community where the enforcement of Law and Order was now in real jeopardy.