April in Spain

John Banville

The following is an exclusive excerpt from April in Spain, by John Banville. While Dublin pathologist Quirke is vacationing in San Sebastian, Spain, he thinks he sees a familiar face: that of a young woman who was murdered by her brother years before. A quick call home sends Detective St. John Strafford on his way. But he's not the only one.

Terry Tice liked killing people. It was as simple as that.

Maybe “liked” wasn’t the right word. Nowadays he was paid to do it, and well paid. But money was never the motive, not really. Then what was? He had given a lot of thought to this question, on and off, over the years. He wasn’t a looney, and it wasn’t a sex thing, or anything sick like that—he was no psycho. The best answer he could come up with was that it was a matter of making things tidy, of putting things in their right place. The people he was hired to kill had got in the way of something, some project or other, and had to be removed in order for business to proceed smoothly. Either that, or they were superfluous, which was just as good a reason for them to be disposed of. Needless to say, he had nothing personal against any of his targets—which is how he thought of them, since “victim” would sound as if he was to blame—except insofar as they were clutter. Yes, it gave him a real sense of satisfaction to make things neat and shipshape.

“Shipshape,” that was the word. After all, he had been in the British navy, for a while, at the end of the war. He was too young to enlist, but he had lied about his age and was taken on, and “saw action,” as the fruity-voiced high-ups liked to say, hunting German submarines in the North Atlantic. Life at sea was boring, however, and boredom was one of the things Terry just couldn’t put up with. Besides, he was prone to seasickness. A sailor who was seasick all the time, that would be a fine thing. So as soon as the chance came, he got out and transferred to the army.

He served for a few months in North Africa, propped on his elbows in wadis, fighting off the f lies and taking potshots at Rommel’s famous Afrika Korps whenever they put up their big square heads, while off on the horizon the tanks buzzed like beetles, spitting fire at each other day and night. After that he did a spell in Burma, where he got the chance to kill a lot of little yellow fellows, and had a fine old time.

In Africa, he had caught a nasty dose of the clap—though was there such a thing as a nice dose of the clap?—and in Burma he contracted an even nastier case of malaria. If it wasn’t one thing it was another. Life—a mug’s game.

The end of the war was a shock for Private Tice. In peacetime, he didn’t know what to do with himself, and drifted from place to place around London, and from job to job. He had no family, that he knew of—he had been brought up, or dragged up, more like, in an Irish orphanage—and didn’t keep in touch with his mates from the old days in the desert or on the ocean wave. There weren’t that many of them, anyway. None, in fact, if the truth were told.

For a while he had a serious go at the girls, but it wasn’t a success. Most of the ones he picked up turned out to be on the game—he must give off a particular scent or something, since the brassers fairly f locked to him; it was a thing he noticed. Of course, it was against his principles to pay for it, and anyway, it wasn’t much to write home about, in his opinion.

There was one who latched on to him who wasn’t a tart. She was a hot little redhead, halfway respectable—she had an office job in the Morris motor car factory up near Oxford, though she was cockney to the bone. He didn’t drive a car, himself, so he only saw her if he went up on the train, or when she came down to the Smoke the odd weekend for a bit of fun among the bright lights. Sapphire, she said her name was. Ooh-la-la. In the Dog and Bone one night he had a rummage in her handbag, just out of curiosity, while she was off powdering her nose, and came across an old ration book and found out her real name was Doris—Doris Huggett, from over Stepney way. That was the same night he realized, when he took a close look at it, that her hair was dyed. He should have known, it was that bright, with that fake metallic shine, like the shine on the curve of a brand-new Morris Oxford mudguard.

Doris-alias-Sapphire didn’t last much longer than any of the others. In a place in Soho on New Year’s Eve she had a couple of Babychams too many and turned away and spluttered with laughter at some remark he had made. He couldn’t see anything funny in what he’d said. Drunk though she was, he took her out the lane behind the club and gave her a few smacks to teach her manners. Next morning, she rang up screaming, and threatening to have him done for assault and battery, but nothing came of it. That was a thing he wouldn’t stand for, being disrespected and made fun of. He had just linked in with an East End outfit, and was doing some profitable robbing and the like. He had to get out, though, after knifing one of the younger blokes in the crew for mimicking his Irish accent—the Irish accent, it should be said, that he hadn’t known he had, until then.

He was handy with a knife, and with shooters—he’d been in the army, after all—and was pretty nifty with his fists, too, when the need arose, even if he was a bantamweight. One of the Kray twins, Ronnie, it was, took him on for a while as an enforcer, but his low stature was against him. That was why he liked Burma, despite the heat and the fever and all the rest of it—the fellows he’d been sent to kill down there were his own size or smaller. It wasn’t easy making a living on Civvy Street, and he was getting desperate, he didn’t mind admitting it, when Percy

Antrobus came sashaying into his life.

Percy was—well, it was hard to say what Percy was, exactly. Heavy, pasty-faced, with a woman’s hips, and bruise-colored pouches under his eyes and a fat lower lip that sagged and turned a glistening shade of dark purple when he’d had a few. Brandy- and-port was his tipple, though he started the day with what he called a coupe, which as Terry discovered was just the French word for a glass of champagne. Percy took his champers ice-cold. He had a swizzle stick that was made of real gold. When Terry asked him what it was for, Percy looked at him in that way he did when he was pretending to be shocked, his eyes big and round as pennies and his mouth pursed into a crimped little circle that looked less like a mouth than a you-know-what, and said, “Dear boy, surely you wouldn’t think of drinking champagne before noon with bubbles in it?”

That was Percy.

And you had to give it to him, it was he who saw Terry’s potential, and introduced him to his true vocation.

Funny, the way it turned out, that his first paid-for target should be, of all people, Percy’s old ma. She had a few bob in the bank, quite a few, in fact, and was threatening to cut Percy out of her will, on account of something he’d done or hadn’t done. Percy, at his wits’ end, had decided the only thing for it was to have her done over before she had time to ring up her solicitor—a “complete stinker,” who had it in for Percy, according to the man himself—and order him to bring her the aforementioned document so she could strike from it the name of her only son, the said Percival.

Terry had come across Percy for the first time one foggy November night in the King’s Head in Putney. Afterward it occurred to him that it hadn’t been a chance encounter at all, and that Percy had picked him out deliberately, as a lad likely to help him in the matter of his inheritance. When, coming up to closing time, Percy started telling him about his problem with “the Mater”—he really did talk like that—and how he intended to go about solving it, Terry thought he was joking.

But it was no joke.

When they were saying good night outside the pub, their breath rising up in big dense puffs through the already dense pea-souper fog, Percy stuck two tenners into Terry’s breast pocket and suggested they meet in the same place at the same time the next night. Terry was in two minds whether to go, but go he did. When Percy saw him coming in the door he gave him a big smile, and treated him to a pint of pale and a dish of jellied eels, and whispered in his ear that he’d pay him a hundred pounds sterling to put a bullet in the old girl’s noggin.

A hundred quid! Terry had never expected to see that much money all in the one fist.

Two days later he shot Mrs. Antrobus in Kensington High Street, in broad daylight, grabbing her bag to make it look like a common or garden snatch job done by some panicky kid. Percy had supplied the pistol—“Absolutely untraceable, laddie, I assure you”—and arranged for it to be got rid of afterward. This was how Terry discovered just how well connected the fat old poofter was. Untraceable heaters didn’t grow on trees.

Next morning the papers ran a big story on the old girl’s death, accompanied by “an artist’s impression” of “the brutal killer.” Terrible likeness.

A few days after the funeral, Terry was treated by his new friend to a slap-up lunch at the Ritz. Terry was uneasy about them being seen together in such a public place, especially after the sudden demise of “the Mater,” but Percy gave him a slow wink and said it was all right, that he often came here with “handsome young chaps such as yourself.”

When lunch was over, Terry’s head was spinning from the wine and the stink of the cigars that Percy smoked, which he did even during the meal. They ambled down St. James’s Street and dropped into the premises of John Lobb, Bootmaker. There Terry was measured for a pair of brogues—he would have preferred something sharper, but when he took delivery of the shoes a couple of weeks later and tried them on, he felt like a lord. He managed to get a look at the bill, and was glad it was on Percy’s account. Percy also bought him a dark-gray titfer at Locks the Hatters, just a few doors up from Lobb’s.

“A young man in your line of work can’t afford to look the part,” Percy said, in his plummy, chairman-of-the-board voice, and sniggered. It took Terry a second or two to get the twist of it. Wit, that was.

“What line of work would that be, exactly, Mr. Antrobus?” Terry inquired, putting on the innocent act.

And Percy only smiled, and tried to pinch young Terry’s neat little backside.

Terry still wore the Lobb shoes on occasion, especially when he was missing Percy, although that wasn’t very often. They had aged nicely, the brogues, and fitted more snugly with each wearing. The gray hat had got badly rained on—at the races at Ascot, as it happened, to which top-hatted Percy had taken him, for a special treat—but Terry didn’t mind as he had never got the hang of wearing it. He thought it made him look like a spiv, not the gentleman Percy had meant to turn him into. Poor old Percy.

He’d had to go, Percy did, in the end, eyes wide with surprise and his mouth shaped into that little puckered pink hole. Went down with a bump and a muffled rumble, like a sack of potatoes.


From April in Spain by John Banville. Used with the permission of the publisher, Hanover Square. Copyright © 2020 by John Banville.

More Story
The Forgotten History of the Far-Right, Pro-Nazi, Anti-Semitic "Christian Front" In the summer of 1939, Father Charles Edward Coughlin, famed “Radio Priest” of Detroit, Michigan, called for the creation...

Support CrimeReads - Become a Member

CrimeReads needs your help. The mystery world is vast, and we need your support to cover it the way it deserves. With your contribution, you'll gain access to exclusive newsletters, editors' recommendations, early book giveaways, and our new "Well, Here's to Crime" tote bag.

Become a member for as low as $5/month