Prologue Provence, South of France, 1926
He studied her sleeping face for the last time.
She was lying peacefully on her back, her fair hair
spreading in ripples over the pillow. Warm-gold by day,
the waves now gleamed pale silver, all colour bleached
away by the moonlight. Her features also were drained
and only the lips still showed a trace of emotion. They
were slightly open and uptilted, perhaps in a suggestion of
remembered and recent passion. He smothered the distasteful
He felt his resolve waver and was alarmed to acknowledge
a moment of indecision. He reminded himself that
this beauty was his – his to spare or to destroy – and a rush
of exaltation swept away the slight uncertainty. It had
been a wobble, no more than a weakness imposed on him
by convention. Convention? Even at this moment of
approaching ecstasy he paused to consider the word. From
the Latin, of course. ‘A coming together’. In agreement and
common consent. Well, convention would never direct him
It was his nature to step away from the crowd, to walk in
the opposite direction, to think his own rebellious thoughts
and to translate those thoughts into action. He would be
true to his nature. He would assert his birthright.
He leaned closer until his face was only inches above the
still form. He had a fancy that, if he pressed his lips to hers,
he might catch her dying breath. The thought revolted and
fascinated him in equal measure and he lifted his head. He
took a deliberate step backwards. He would not touch her.
No part of his body would make contact with hers. To test
his resolve he contemplated trailing a lascivious finger
along her smooth throat as others had, of allowing that finger
to ease over the left collar bone until it encountered the
imperfection of a tiny mole half-hidden by a fold of her
white gown. His hand remained safely in his pocket. He
would look. Admire. Hate.
He stood for a moment, a shadow among shadows. The
garment he’d put on had been carefully chosen: an oldfashioned
hunting coat (English tailoring, he did believe),
it had been abandoned on a hook by the door in the cloakroom
by some visiting milord, years, possibly decades,
ago. The thick grey tweed was a perfect camouflage – it
even had a hood – and, essential for his purpose, not one
but two concealed poacher’s pockets. His fine nose was
revolted by the smell of decay that lurked in the tweedy
depths, still stained with the blood of long-dead creatures,
but they accommodated the very special equipment he had
needed to carry, covertly, along the corridors.
He played with the notion of taking out the heavy-duty
military torch and lighting up her last moments, but an
innate caution made him dismiss the idea. The moonlight
was all the illumination he could wish for. A resplendent
August moon shone through the uncurtained windows,
coating the alabaster-fair features with an undeserved
glaze of sanctity.
The Moon. Generous but demanding deity! He adored
her. She was his friend, his accomplice. He welcomed the
white peace and forgiveness she brought at the end of each
day’s red turmoil and sin. Like some sprite from a northern
folk tale, he came to life in the dark hours. His eyes
grew wide, his thoughts became as clear and cold as the
moon herself. His senses were sharpened.
He listened. He turned abruptly as a distant owl
screeched and claimed its prey. A farm dog across the valley
responded with a half-hearted warning howl and then
fell silent, duty done. But from within the walls there was
no sound. His stretched senses detected nothing though he
could imagine the drunken snores, the unconscious mutterings,
the hands groping blindly for a pitcher of cool
water as his fellows slept, divided from him by several
thick walls and a courtyard. He would be undisturbed.
The weight in his right pocket banged against his thigh
and prompted his next move. He took out the heavy claw
hammer and ran a hand over the blunt metal head; with
the pads of his fingers he tested the sharpness of the upcurving,
V-shaped nail-wrench that balanced it at the rear.
He required the tool to perform well in both its capacities.
It would smash with concentrated force and, with a twist
of his hand, would lever and rip. It would be equal to the
task. But there would be noise. He took a velvet scarf from
his neck and wound it securely around the hammer head
to muffle the blows.
He was being overcautious. No one would respond,
even if the sounds cut through their wine-fuelled stupor. A
strange light might possibly have excited curiosity and
investigation by some inquisitive servant. No, he didn’t
discount a dutiful response from one of these domestics if
he were careless enough to draw attention. The live-in staff
were well chosen, adequately paid and highly trained. So,
no wandering lights. But a few distant creaks and bangs in
a crumbling old building went, like the dog’s howl,
unheeded by everyone.
He’d savoured the moment for too long. Enough of musing.
Enough of gloating over her loveliness. Time to move
on. Time to clear this filth from his path to make way for
a worthier offering.
He took out the fencing mask he’d thought to bring with
him and put it over his face. He wanted no tell-tale
scratches raising eyebrows at the breakfast table. He pulled
up the hood of the hunting coat to cover his hair. There
would be no traces of this night’s activity left clinging to
his person, attracting the attention of that sharp-eyed girl
who cleaned out his room.
He was ready.
As a last flourish, he muttered cynically an abbreviated
prayer for a lost soul in Latin: ‘Quaesumus, Domine, miserere famulae tuae, Alienorae, et a contagiis mortalitatis exutam, in aeternam salvationis partem restitue.
Have mercy on the soul
of your maidservant, Aliénore, and free her from the defilement
of her mortal flesh . . .’
As he murmured, his supple fingers ran with satisfaction
along the smooth wooden handle of the ancient hammer.
He’d used it often and knew its strength. The muscles of
his arms were accommodated to its use as those of a tennis
player to his racquet, and they responded now with
familiar ease as he swung the weight upwards over his
head and brought it crashing down into the centre of the
Chapter One France, August 1926
‘To wake or not to wake the pest?’ was Joe’s silent question.
Would she really welcome an elbow in the ribs only half
an hour after sinking so ostentatiously into sleep? He
glanced again at the suspiciously still form in the passenger
seat next to him and the half of the face that was
visible. The pure profile and slight smile were deceptively
angelic, and he decided to leave her to her daydreams. But
a road sign had just announced that they were a mere five
kilometres north of the town of Valence. Here they were,
booming on south at a speed the Morris Oxford cabriolet
could never have reached, let alone sustained, on English
roads. Joe Sandilands was no car-worshipper, but he could
almost have persuaded himself that it (he refused to call
this ingenious arrangement of metal ‘she’) was enjoying
swallowing up the huge French distances.
The day was hot; the hood was down. Avenues of plane
trees lined the route, offering, for mile after mile, a beneficent
The girl in the passenger seat was fast asleep – or pretending
to be. You could never tell with Dorcas. Joe was
quite certain that she frequently rolled up her cardigan and
pushed her head into it, facing away from him, the minute
they got into the car, deliberately to avoid making polite
And that suited Joe.
Was she being considerate? Or was she bored out of her
mind by him? He decided – bored. A seasoned police
officer more than twice her age would never be an ideal
companion for a fourteen-year-old English girl, however
well travelled she might be. Lord! How old was he these
days? Thirty-three! But at least no one had yet taken him
for her father and Joe was thankful for that.
‘My uncle Joseph Sandilands. Commander Sandilands
of Scotland Yard,’ was all the introduction Dorcas was
prepared to supply when she felt their travelling arrangements
called for clarification. But it was all the reassurance
people seemed to need. The suggestion of a blood relationship
and an impressive title put Joe beyond reproach
or even question. Particularly when he hurried to add,
allowing just the briefest flicker of martyrdom to flit across
his agreeable features, that he was escorting his niece down
to her father who was spending the summer at the Château
du Diable –
or whatever its pantomime name was – in
Provence. Dropping her off as he himself flighted south to
the delights of the Riviera. As he’d jokingly told his sister
Lydia who’d engineered the unwelcome escort duty, he
would be held up as an example from Calais to Cannes of
self-sacrificing unclehood. And so, to his surprise, it had
proved. The slight deceit, embarked on in the interests of
an oversensitive English concern for the proprieties, had
gone unchallenged and undiscovered. Uncle
Joseph! The word made him feel old. In his world,
uncles were elderly and rather decrepit survivors of the
war before the last. They sat in armchairs, smiling benignly
at their descendants, muttering of Mafeking, their lower
limbs rugged up in tartan. After a shifty glance to make
certain Dorcas still had her eyes closed, Joe pushed his sun
goggles on to his forehead, tilted his head and squinted
critically into the useful mirror he’d had fixed to his windscreen
in Lyon to keep an eye on traffic behind. They were
all there on his face: the lines and the crow’s feet sketched
in by a tough life lived mostly outdoors. And undeniably
on the advance. But at least his grey eyes were taking on
an interesting brilliance as his face grew darker in the
southern sun. He narrowed his eyes, trying on an air of
menace and mystery. All too easily achieved when the left
side of your face was slightly distorted. He’d never found
the time to have the battlefield surgery corrected and now
it was too late – he’d grown into his shrapnel-scarred
features. He wore the damage like a medal – with a silent
and bitter pride.
‘For goodness’ sake, Joe! Book yourself into St Mary’s
and have that repaired,’ his sister Lydia constantly urged.
‘Surgeons are so much more skilled these days. They can
rebuild whole faces – your little piece of mis-stitching
would hardly begin to test them. You’d be in and out in no
time and we’d have our handsome old Joe back again the
moment the bandages came off.’ She’d waggle a minatory
finger at him and add: ‘And never forget what they say!
“The face is the mirror of the soul.” Aplatitude, I agree, but
a sentiment I’ve always put some store by. It’s deceitful of
you to present this distorted funfair reflection of yourself
to the world.’
But he’d resisted. Quibbled. Procrastinated. In eight
years of police work, he’d discovered the power of intimidation
he could exert by presenting his battered left side
to the suspects he was interrogating. It spoke of battles
survived, pain endured, experience acquired. With a turn
of the head, he could trump the villainy of any man he’d
confronted across the interview table. ‘You think you’re
tough?’ he challenged silently. ‘How tough? As tough as this
?’ Men who’d evaded the draft found themselves
wrong-footed, fellow soldiers recognized an officer who’d
clearly led from the front and accorded him a measure of
Joe underlined the effect of the drama he was assessing
in his rear-viewing mirror with the cruel grin and slanting
flash of white teeth of a music-hall villain. Not quite
Ramon Novarro in Scaramouche
but, even so – not bad! Not
bad at all! He could use that sardonic look at the casino or
strolling along the promenade in Nice. He recalled, with a
stir of excitement, the words his superior in the War Office
had used when encouraging him, for Reasons of State, to
undertake this journey to France: ‘I’m sure I don’t need to
remind you, Sandilands, that female companionship – if
that’s what you’re after – is available and of a superior
style in France.’ The Brigadier’s remark was uncharacteristically
indiscreet, unwittingly arousing. Joe had been surprised,
amused and then dismissive but the titillating
notion had stayed with him. His foot unconsciously
increased its pressure on the accelerator. Yes, he was eager
to be down there, sipping his first pastis under a blistering
Riviera sun, eyeing pretty women parading about in tennis
skirts and swimming costumes. And if they were enticing
your ear with a French accent – so much the better.
‘Ah! Bulldog Drummond races south, pistol in his hip
pocket, ready for a shoot-out with Le Bossu Masqué,’
commented a lazily teasing voice. Dorcas gave a showy
yawn to indicate she was open to conversation. ‘Only one
thing wrong. Pulling a face like that, you really ought to be
driving a Sports Bentley. You don’t cut much of a dash in
things wrong. My female companion – that’s you –
ought to be bound and gagged and wriggling helplessly on
the back seat with her head in a bag.’
‘Le Bossu’s wicked accomplice whom you’ve taken
‘Very likely. Female of the species being what she is and
all that . . .’
Dorcas looked about her. ‘Oy! Didn’t I ask you to be sure
and tell me when we got to Valence?’
‘I was just about to wake you, though I can’t imagine
why I should bother. It’s not much of a place and we’re
driving straight by it.’
‘Family tradition! Father always marks our passage
through the town by shouting, “A Valence, le Midi com- mence!
” Though at the speed my family plods along in a
horse-drawn caravan we have more time to enjoy the
moment. Listen, Joe! In a minute or so, if you slow down
a bit, you’ll hear them. The cicadas. The sound of
Joe smiled. She was right. In a strange way, everything
behind them was of the north: green and quiet. The snowclad
Alps still funnelled their cold breath down the valley
of the river the road was following. But the land ahead was
tilted towards the sun. The atmosphere grew suddenly
more brilliant, the rush of air warmer. The vegetation was
changing and he welcomed the sight of the first outlying
umbrella pines and the narrow dark fingers of cypress
trees leaning gently before the wind, beckoning them on.
Soon there would be olives fluttering the silvery underside
of their leaves at him.
He took his foot off the accelerator and, hearing his first
cicada, decided to stand in for her absent father, Orlando.
The girl had little enough in the way of family life; the least
he could do was reinforce the few happy memories she
chose to share with him. ‘Le Midi commence!
’ he shouted.
‘Here comes the South!’
Satisfied, the ritual complete, Dorcas breathed in the
changing perfumes and asked for the umpteenth time: ‘Are
we nearly there, Joe?’ to annoy him.
He decided to bore her back to sleep again with a recitation
of distances, speeds and map references but a rush of
good humour cut him short. ‘No! Miles to go before bedtime.
Big place, Provence. I was planning to spend the
night in Avignon then set off into the hills straight after
breakfast to track down your pa. Silmont? That’s the place
we have to find. Outskirts of the Lubéron hills. Olivesilvery
Silmont?’ he speculated. ‘I wonder if there’ll be
vines growing there? And lavender. Honeysuckle. All those
herbs . . . wild thyme . . . rosemary . . . oregano,’ he murmured.
She was feigning sleep again. Botany also was a bore,
Joe fought down a spurt of irritation with the child’s
father. As a friend, Orlando Joliffe came in for a good
measure of regard, even affection, from Joe. Joe found –
and was surprised to find – that he admired his skills as an
artist but he also enjoyed the man’s company. He appreciated
his intelligence and his worldly ways. When Joe
made himself evaluate the relationship which would have
been frowned on in his own staid professional circle, he
came reluctantly to the conclusion that there was in
Orlando a quality of raffish insouciance, a childlike delight
in sensual indulgence that struck a chord in Joe’s being,
that spoke to something long buried under layers of
Yes, as a drinking companion there was none better but,
judged as a father, Orlando failed on all counts to satisfy.
He wasn’t uncaring exactly but careless, ready to leave the
upbringing of his four motherless children to anyone he
could persuade or pay or blackmail into attending to their
needs. When Joe’s sister, in dire emergency, had shown
neighbourly concern and rashly offered to take Dorcas
under her wing, Orlando had accepted with shaming
Lovely, good-hearted Lydia! Joe felt a pang of guilt
whenever he thought of his sister’s involvement with the
wretched Orlando’s family circus.
It had all been Joe’s fault.
In a moment of concern for the family’s situation, he’d
handed over Lydia’s telephone number. ‘This here’s my
sister’s number. You’ll see she lives close by. She has children
of her own and she’s a trained nurse. You can depend
on her. Give her a ring if there should be an immediate
problem and you can’t raise me.’
And Dorcas had taken him at his word. With lifechanging
results for several people, not least poor Lydia.
Appalled by the circumstances of the children’s hand-tomouth,
bohemian existence Lydia had swept them all away
to the safety of her own comfortable home. Dorcas had
stayed on longer than the rest, and, with her uncivilized
ways of going on, she’d become a project for Lydia, her
upbringing a social duty. ‘Give me that girl for two years
and I’ll have her fit to present to the Queen at a
Buckingham Palace reception,’ she’d been unwise enough
to declare in Orlando’s hearing. He’d hurried to take her
up on the offer and Dorcas had become a fixture in the
household. And Joe had acquired ‘a niece’.
Months had passed but ‘Auntie’ Lydia was still a long
way short of her target, Joe reckoned. As his brother-in-law
commented, ‘Buckingham Palace be blowed! I wouldn’t
trust that scallywag to behave herself at a Lyon’s Corner
But then, on their journey through France, the child had
surprised Joe. Lydia’s training and preparation had not
been in vain, it seemed. Dorcas had put on gloves and –
alarmingly – silk stockings and behaved impeccably for the
family at the Champagne Château Houdart where they’d
stayed near Rheims. He glanced at the shiny dark head
with its newly acquired and very fashionable fringed bob
and smiled a smile that was both sad and tender. The
wretched girl, he did believe, had fallen in love. With the
highly suitable and totally admirable son of the house.
Aged all of sixteen, Georges Houdart had seemed equally
smitten and the two had been inseparable for the length of
It was all too premature, Joe feared. A scene from Romeo and Juliet
in preparation? Joe grinned as he happily dismissed
the thought. These two were old beyond their
years; they’d both, in their different ways, grown up taking
too much, too early, on young shoulders. But this too
had happened on his watch. Perhaps he should have a
word with Orlando when they finally tracked him down?
Issue some sort of warning? Urge a belated paternal
concern? ‘Well, here’s your daughter back, old man. No –
no trouble at all . . . In fact she’s been most helpful. And
here she is – delivered safe and sound in wind and limb,
as you see, but – have a care – there may be unseen
wounds in the region of the heart . . .’ No. Joe knew it
would be a waste of time. He’d wait and report back to
Lydia when he returned to Surrey. Lydia would know
whether to speak out or be silent.
With her uncomfortable ability to intercept and respond
to his thoughts, Dorcas, eyes still closed, was muttering:
‘Do you think Orlando’ll notice I’ve changed a bit? So
many things to tell him when we get to him.’
‘Yes, lots to tell Orlando,’ Joe agreed. ‘But I was wondering,
Dorcas, when – if, indeed, ever
– you were going to
come clean with me
and confess all. Would this be a good
moment to tell me what you need to tell me?’
Her eyes popped open and he felt an undignified rush
of triumph to see he’d surprised her.
‘Whatever are you talking about? Confess? To you?
You’re a policeman not a priest!’
He grinned. ‘I think it’s entirely possible that you’ll be
needing me in both
capacities before we go much farther.
Do you want me to spell it out? Would it ease your confession
if I were to say: I know what you’re up to!
Joe left a space for the inevitable outburst of denial to
run its course but there was a long silence.
‘When did you guess?’ Her voice was suddenly
‘I don’t guess. I work things out. It’s what I do. But, to
answer your question: it occurred to me before we left
Surrey. All that nonsense about not wanting to go to
Scotland with Lydia’s family for the holidays? You were
given every chance to come south with your father and his
menagerie when he set off at the start of the summer but
you refused. And I had
noticed you’d been devouring
Walter Scott’s novels one after the other and you’d got
together a whole collection of hill-walking clothes from
Lillywhite’s – from boots to tam-o’-shanter and everything
in between. You were looking forward to Scotland but the
moment you discovered that – just for once – I
going north with Lydia but motoring down to spend a
month in Antibes with an old army mate, you changed
your plans. You used every possible means of persuading
my sister to talk me into bringing you along with me. Out
went the woollies – sandals and shorts were chucked into
a bag. Walter Scott was put back on the library shelves
and Alphonse Daudet and something coyly entitled So You’re Going to Provence?
were done up with string and
put out ready for the journey. Not one of my most challenging
puzzles, Dorcas! For some reason, you wanted to
be here with me in Provence. Am I getting this right? Say
She nodded dumbly, unable to come up with a riposte.
Joe paused, giving her time to make her own explanation.
She turned on him angrily. ‘Crikey! You must be a
difficult man to live with! Sneaking about looking in
wardrobes . . . checking labels! Going through my books!
You’ve a nerve!’
Again, he waited.
‘Well, all right.’ She took a moment to collect her
thoughts, considering him through eyes narrowed in
speculation. He knew the signs and prepared himself to
hear one of her easy fabrications but her confession when
it came was halting and clumsy, the pain in her voice
undeniable. ‘Yes. It seemed too good a chance to waste. I’ve
been trying for years, Joe. Every time we’ve come south
with my father, for as long as I can remember, I’ve tried.
With no co-operation from Orlando. He doesn’t want me
to succeed. He really doesn’t. I’ve searched and searched
from Orange down to Les Saintes Maries on the coast. I’ve
talked with gypsies and men of the road . . . I’ve checked
every new grave in every cemetery. No luck. There’s a limit
to what a child can do even down here where there’s more
freedom to come and go and talk to anyone you meet.
Life’s not so . . . so corseted . . . as it is in England. But even
so, it’s not easy. And now I’m getting older . . .’ Dorcas
looked uncomfortable for a moment, ‘there will be places I
can’t go to, people I just can’t interview without running a
risk . . . I’m sure you can imagine. Gigolos and white
slavers and bogeymen of that description. I know how the
world works . . . I’m not stupid!’
‘So you thought you’d latch on to a sympathetic chap
who can go unchallenged into these dangerous and shady
places and ask the right questions on your behalf –’
‘A nosy fellow with a good right hook!’ she interrupted.
‘And one who speaks French of a sort? That’s always
‘Mmm . . . these valuable attributes come at a price.’ Joe
nodded sagely. ‘I warn you there’ll be a forfeit to pay.
‘Agreed.’ She accepted without thought, not bothering to
ask what the fee would be. She knew he was just making
pompous noises and he knew that she would break any
agreement that proved not to suit her anyway.
He pushed on with his pretence: ‘So long as you’re
hiring my detective services, I think I should insist on a
clear client’s instruction from you. I wouldn’t want to
discover you were expecting me to track down that silver
bangle you dropped down a drain in Arles the year before
Dorcas smiled. ‘No. I want you to find something much
more precious, Joe. Something I lost thirteen years ago. I
want you to find my mother.’
Excerpted from Strange Images of Death by Barbara Cleverly. Copyright © 2011 by Barbara Cleverly. Excerpted by permission of Soho Crime, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.