Birds of a Feather
An Excerpt From
Birds of a Feather

Chapter One

Maisie Dobbs shuffled the papers on her desk into a neat pile and placed them in a plain manila folder. She took up green marble W.H. Smith fountain pen and inscribed the cover with the name of her new clients: Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Johnson, who were concerned that their son's fiancée might have misled them regarding her past. It was the sort of case that was easily attended to, that would provide a useful reference, and that could be closed with presentation of a timely report and accompanying account for her services. But for Maisie the case notes would not be filed away until those whose lives were touched by her investigation had reached a certain peace with her findings, with themselves, and with one another - as far as that might be possible. As she wrote, a tendril of jet black hair tumbled down into her eyes. Sighing, she quickly pushed it back into the chignon at the nape of her neck. Suddenly, Maisie set her pen on the blotting pad, pulled the troublesome wisp of hair free so that it hung down again, and walked to the large mirror hanging on the wall above the fireplace. She unpinned her long hair and tucked it inside the collar of her white silk blouse, pulling out just an inch or so around her chin-line. Would shorter hair suit her?

"Perhaps Lady Rowan is right," said Maisie to her reflection in the mirror. "Perhaps it would look better in a bob."

She turned from side to side several times, and lifted her hair just slightly. Shorter hair might save a few minutes of precious time each morning, and it would no longer come free of the chignon and fall into her eyes. But one thing held her back. She lifted her hair and turned her head. Was the scar visible? Would shorter hair fall in such a way as to reveal the purple weal that etched a line from her neck into the sensitive flesh of her scalp? If her hair was cut, would she lean forward over her notes one day and unwittingly allow a client to see the damage inflicted by the German shell that had ripped into the casualty clearing station where she was working, in France, in 1917?

Looking at the room reflected in the mirror, Maisie considered how far she had come-not only from the dark dingy office in Warren Street that was all she had been able to afford just over a year ago, but from that first meeting with Maurice Blanche, her mentor and teacher, when she had been a maid in the household of Lord Julian Compton and his wife, Lady Rowan. It was Maurice and Lady Rowan who had noted Maisie's intellect and ensured that she had every opportunity to pursue her hunger for education. They had made it possible for the former tweeny maid to gain admission to Girton College, Cambridge.

Maisie quickly pulled her hair into a neat chignon again, and as she pinned the twist into place, she glanced out of the floor-to-ceiling window that overlooked Fitzroy Square. Her assistant, Billy Beale, had just turned in to the square and was crossing the rain-damp gray flagstones toward the office. Her scar began to throb. As she watched Billy, Maisie began to assume his posture. She moved toward the window with shoulders dropped, hands thrust into imaginary pockets, and her gait mimicking the awkwardness caused by Billy's still-troublesome war wounds. Her disposition began to change, and she realized that the occasional malaise she had sensed several weeks ago was now a constant in Billy's life.

As she looked down at him from what had once been the drawing room window of the Georgian building, he stretched the cuff of his overcoat over the palm of his hand and polished the brass nameplate informing visitors that the office of M. Dobbs, Psychologist and Investigator, was situated within. Satisfied, Billy straightened, drew back his shoulders, stretched his spine, ran his fingers through his tousled shock of wheaten hair, and took out his key to the main door. Maisie watched as he corrected his posture. You can't fool me, Billy Beale, she said to herself. The front door closed with a heavy thud, and the stairs creaked as Billy ascended to the office. "Morning, Miss. I picked up the records you wanted." Billy placed a plain brown envelope on Maisie's desk. "Oh, and another thing, Miss, I bought a Daily Express for you to 'ave a butcher's 'ook at." He took a newspaper from the inside pocket of his overcoat. "That woman what was found murdered in 'er own 'ome a week or two ago down in Surrey-you remember, in Coulsden-well, there's more details 'ere, of who she was, and the state she was in when she was found."

"Thank you, Billy," said Maisie, taking the newspaper.

"She was only your age, Miss. Terrible, innit?"

"It certainly is." Maisie quickly scanned the story.

"I wonder if our friend ... well, your friend, really-Detective Inspector Stratton-is involved?"

"Most likely. Since the murder took place outside London, it's a Murder Squad case."

Billy looked thoughtful. "Fancy 'avin' to say you work for the Murder Squad, eh, Miss? Don't exactly warm folk to you, does it?"

Maisie scanned the newspaper quickly. "Oh, that's a newspaper invention to sell more papers. I think they started to use it when the Crippen case became big news. It used to be called the Reserve Squad, but that didn't sound ominous enough. And Criminal Investigation Department is a bit of a mouthful." Maisie looked up at Billy, "And by the way, Billy, what do you mean by my 'friend,' eh?"

"Aw, nuffin' really, Miss. It's just that-"

Billy was interrupted by the ringing of the black telephone on Maisie's desk. He raised his eyebrows and reached for the receiver.

"Fitzroy five-six-double-0. Good afternoon, Detective Inspector Stratton. Yes, she's 'ere. I'll put her on." he smiled broadly, covering the receiver with his palm as Maisie, blushing slightly, held out her hand to take it.

"Now, Miss, what was it that Doctor Blanche used to say about coincidence being a-what was it? Oh yes, a messenger of truth?"

"That's enough, Billy," Maisie took the receiver and waved him away. "Inspector Stratton, how very nice to hear from you. I expect you're busy with the murder case in Coulsden."

"And how did you know that, Miss Dobbs? No, don't tell me. It's probably best that I don't know."

Maisie laughed. "To what do I owe this call, Inspector?"

"Purely social, Miss Dobbs. I thought I'd ask if you might care to dine with me."

Maisie hesitated, tapped the desk with her pen, and then replied,

"Thank you for the invitation, Inspector Stratton. It really is most kind of you ... but perhaps we can lunch together instead."

There was a pause. "Certainly, Miss Dobbs. Will you be free on Friday?"

"Indeed. Yes, Friday would be excellent."

"Good. I'll meet you at your office at noon, and we can go from there to Bertorelli's."

Maisie hesitated. "May I meet you at Bertorelli's? At noon?"

Again the line was quiet. Why does this have to be so difficult? Maisie thought.

"Of course. Friday, noon at Bertorelli's."

"I'll see you then. Good-bye." She replaced the receiver thoughtfully.

"Aye-oop, 'ere's a nice cuppa for you, Miss." Billy placed the tea tray on his desk, poured milk and tea into a large enamel mug for Maisie, and placed it in front of her.

"Don't mind me askin', Miss-and I know it ain't none of my business, like-but why don't you take 'im up on the offer of a dinner? I mean, gettin' the odd dinner fer nuffin' ain't such a bad thing"

"Lunch and dinner are two entirely different things, and going out for luncheon with a gentleman is definitely not the same as going out to dine in the evening."

"You get more grub at dinner, for a start-"

Billy was interrupted by the doorbell. As he moved to the window to see who might be calling, Maisie noticed him rub his thigh and wince. The war wound, earned almost thirteen years before, during the Battle of Messines in 1917, was nipping at him again. Billy left to answer the doorbell, and as he did so, Maisie heard him negotiate the stairs with difficulty as he descended to the front door.

"Message for M. Dobbs. Urgent. Sign 'ere, please."

"Thanks, mate." As Billy signed for the envelope he reached into his pocket for some change to hand the messenger. He closed the door and sighed before mounting the stairs again. As he returned to the office he held out the envelope to Maisie.

"That leg giving you trouble?" she asked.

"Just a bit more than usual. Mind you, I'm not as young as I was."

"Have you been back to the doctor?"

"Not lately. There ain't much they can do, is there? I'm a lucky fella-got a nice job when there's 'undreds and 'undreds of blokes linin' up fer work. Can't be feelin' sorry for meself, can I?"

"We're fortunate, Billy. There seems to be more business for us, what with people going missing after losing all their money, and others getting up to no good at all." She turned the envelope in her hands.

"Well, well, well...."

"What is it, Miss?"

"Did you notice the return address on the envelope? This letter's from Joseph Waite."

"You mean the Joseph Waite? Moneybags Joseph Waite? The one they call the Banker's Butcher?"

"He's requested that I come to his residence-'soonest,' he says-to receive instructions for an investigation."

"I suppose 'e's used to orderin' folk around and getting' 'is own way-"

Billy was interrupted once more by the ringing telephone. "Gawd, Miss, there goes the dog-and-bone again!"

Birds of a Feather

Birds of a Feather