Miss Jenkins concentrated on her image in the mirror as she pinned back her silver-grey hair into the bun that was expected of a spinster of her age. It was, she had found out years ago, always better to do what people expected; saved a lot of trouble that way, and at her age (which she admitted was the wrong side of seventy) trouble was something best saved. So she pinned back her hair into a bun and wore a grey tweed suit, so practical, so hardwearing, just right for a spinster who wanted to make sure her money lasted.
Not, let it be understood, that Miss Jenkins was without means. It was quite clear to everybody that she was comfortable — maybe only just comfortable but comfortable nonetheless — though she would be the first to admit that the extra income from her occasional work was more than useful. It paid for such nice little things; those small extras that made life worth living, like her monthly trips up to the Isle of Wight. She so looked forward to those, but they did cost, and every little extra helped.
It was not just a case of the money that kept Miss Jenkins working. It was also a matter of keeping one’s hand in; of having something to do, something to be proud of. There is not much of a role for elderly spinsters in English villages nowadays. People did not conveniently dump dead bodies in the vicar’s library, thereby providing one with a few days’ cerebral activity. Anyway, so far as Miss Jenkins knew the village did not have a vicar, though she suspected there was more than one homicidal maniac. One only had to look at the way they drove!
She had checked the weather forecast that morning, both on the wireless (she still insisted on calling it the wireless; she could not get used to ‘radio’ as she knew it should be) and on the Internet (such a useful addition to her life, allowing her to find out what was going on in the world around her). David, her great-nephew, had arrived one weekend with the computer for her, installed it and showed her how it worked.
“Yull sun gat te hung ov hit Aunty,” he had assured her.
She only wished that she could get the hang of the dialect that the youth seemed to speak today; it had so little connection with the Queen’s English that she had learnt so carefully all those years ago. She did, though, admit that she had got the hang of the Internet quite soon and found it so very useful, especially eBay. There were so many odds and ends that one needed to dispose of at times and it was such a convenient way to sell them. Edith Jenkins had really got the hang of it; she had even managed to email David to thank him for sorting it out for her, though she had not been able to make sense of his reply, which seemed to be written in a foreign language.
Having decided that the day would be dry but chilly, she picked up a lightweight overcoat and a pair of fine kid gloves. That was one thing she would never skimp on: gloves. You always had to have good gloves, ones that you could feel through, there was so much in feeling things. Then, pinning a small black hat to her head with a couple of extra-long hatpins and picking up a rather large but eminently sensible handbag she was ready.
The bus stop on the route that would take her into town was conveniently close to the front door of her cottage. Not too close (one did not want people queuing up outside your windows!) but close enough that one did not have to walk too far.
The bus arrived only a couple of minutes late. That was one advantage about the nearby airfield; the servicemen stationed there meant there was a good demand for bus travel into the town, so the village had a regular service.
Miss Jenkins mounted the boarding platform and showed her pass to the driver. Not that George really wanted to see it, he knew her well enough and knew she was entitled to free travel. It was, though, Miss Jenkins thought, only correct that she confirmed the fact. She would not want people thinking that she was taking advantage of things. That would never do!
The bus was full; that was the disadvantage of the early bus, it so often was. Angus Protherow’s girl, Milly, was seated near the front with a young serviceman. Miss Jenkins saw Milly give the young man a sharp dig in the ribs with her elbow as she spoke into his ear. He stood, indicating that Miss Jenkins should take the seat. She smiled at the young man and thanked him, settling down next to Milly. Such a nice practical girl, she thought; always considerate. She queried Milly about her health and asked when the baby was due, though judging by the lump the girl was displaying it could not be long. Eight weeks. Longer than she thought, though maybe it was twins. Still enough time to get matched before the birth; not that Miss Jenkins put much store by such formalities. She and her Albert had never bothered about such things and it had been no problem, but then there was never any question of children.
That was why she was still known as Miss Jenkins, even though she and Albert had been together for over thirty years. They had just never got around to formalising the arrangement. Of course, in the early days there had been the problem of Gladys, Albert’s wife. She had been totally opposed to a divorce, being Catholic, and back then they were not so easy to get. Then when Gladys had gone and had that accident on the underground and was no longer a problem, there had just seemed no point. Why change something that was working? Anyway there had been benefits, like when Albert had been in that bit of trouble with the tax man, they had not been able to touch any of the property; it was all in her name.
Miss Jenkins lightly touched her eyes with a lace-trimmed handkerchief; thinking about Albert always made her a bit emotional. All right, they had their arguments, but who didn’t? On the whole, though, they got on well together; well, they must have done, having been so long together. It was quite an emotional hit when he was taken, which was one of the reasons she had moved to the village; getting rid of the baggage that went with the house where they had always lived. Anyway, she was known in the village. Her uncle had been vicar here, many years ago, but her aunt had lived into her late nineties, and Miss Jenkins had regularly made the trip down from London to visit her, often staying for a week or two. Never, of course, with Albert. Aunt Maud had never approved of Albert or the relationship they had.
It was almost as if Aunt Maud had been waiting to see him off. The week after he was taken, she took ill with pneumonia and within two weeks was dead — only a month short of her century — leaving Miss Jenkins the cottage. It was too good an opportunity to miss. London house prices were rising and she was on her own in a house that was far too big, with a nice place in the country waiting for her. Miss Jenkins had let the place to the first decent offer that she got, which had been well over what she had expected, and moved down to the country. That had been, what, eight years ago? Eight years since Albert was taken!
She almost missed the stop at the station, so deep in thought had she been. If Milly had not prodded her because she wanted to get off, Miss Jenkins probably would have stayed on the bus. Well, at her age one did let oneself drift a bit. A very bad habit, but old ladies seemed to get into it so easily.
The train trip to London was its usual tedium. Once upon a time she had looked forward to such trips, but now, well she wished she could avoid them. There was no longer the service there once had been. Even in first class you had to go to the buffet to get a tea or coffee. At her age the idea of walking along a moving train with a paper cup of hot liquid was not one that appealed to her.
Then there were the phones and the laptop computers that everybody seemed to take out and put on the tables. They were not travelling, they were working. This, to Miss Jenkins’ mind, was a mistake. Travel was something during which you should relax and enjoy the experience. How you could relax in what was a mobile office was something that eluded her. Increasingly these trips were causing her to think about getting one of the boys to come and collect her by car, but that did not feel quite right to her. A trip to London should be made by train. That was the way it was done.
As usual the train, for some reason not announced, was late arriving in London. Outside the station a queue of people stood waiting for non-existent taxis, looking in anger at a single black cab parked across the road, its light out. Miss Jenkins walked a bit down from the queue and raised her umbrella. The parked cab sprang into life and shot across the road, the driver leaping out and coming round to open the door for the small woman.
“Where today Aunty?” Miss Jenkins gave him the name of one of the more exclusive shopping streets in London and indicated a specific store.
Climbing back into his cab the driver took a deep breath. “Rather upmarket, you’re sure you want to do there?”
“Of course, Stephen, quality counts, and one has to go for quality these days. How’s the family, that eldest boy of yours, Michael, still having problems?”
“Not really, that run-in with the police last year knocked some sense into the lad. Uncle Harry went berserk you know?”
Miss Jenkins nodded, she knew Albert’s brother’s opinion of Michael.
Stephen, observing the nod in the mirror, continued, “anyway, he’s out working with Harry, down Brick Lane.”
Miss Jenkins nodded, then asked about Neil, Stephen’s younger son, and Ruth , his daughter.
“Oh they’re fine, all ready and waiting, just where you told me to put them. How long should they wait?”
“I’ll need at least forty minutes, probably longer. You know how these things go.”
The driver nodded as he pulled into the kerb, allowing his passenger to descend.
The Miss Jenkins who got out of the cab, looked nothing like the drab spinster who had got in. She spoke to the driver for a few moments, checked her handbag, corrected her smooth white kidskin gloves and then made her way to the door of the jeweller’s. It was one of those where you had to ring the bell and wait for a member of staff to open it. The staff, though, were very attentive and had seen the cab pull up. The moment she pressed the bell the door was opened.
“Good morning, Madam, so nice to see you again,” the door opener commented, only to be cut off in his welcome by an older man: the manager, who had appeared, magic-like, at Miss Jenkins’ elbow. He guided her to a chair next to a leather topped table, at the side of a display case.
“We were not expecting to see you again so soon,” the manager stated in a manner that almost became a question.
“An unexpected need to come to London so I thought I would get some shopping out of the way,” Miss Jenkins replied. She seemed to have lost the accent of Kent and now spoke with a slight hint of French to her voice.
“Ah, Madam, we are happy to assist. Did you have anything in particular in mind?”
“Nothing particular, my great-niece’s twenty-first in July. I was going to get her something from Bulogni in Pisa, but won’t be able to get there now, so I thought of yourselves, and seeing I was in town...”
The man smiled and quickly indicated to assistants that display cases should be opened and trays of items brought for the elderly woman to examine.
Item by item she looked through the contents of the cases. Some pieces she would briefly look at, others she would hold up to catch the light, moving them between her hands. The way she moved them made her look almost like a magician flashing baubles on a stage. In fact, Miss Jenkins had been a magician’s assistant many years ago. In that role she had learnt a lot. It was at the stage door that she had met Albert; he had taught her much more. He showed her how to appreciate what she was looking at and how to lull people so that they did not know they were watching a show. Now she was an expert and the fine jewellery pieces danced across her hands.
Most she handled briefly, rejecting them to be returned to their trays. Others she would hold for moments; touching them, bringing them close to her face, then rejecting some for no clear reason, and selecting others to be put to one side so she could look at them again. A diamond and emerald pendant, a rope of black pearls, and sapphire festoons; all of these she looked at, handled and considered. She made comments about each piece, identifying the stones, designers and workmen, showing an understanding of fine jewellery that few outside the profession would possess. Then she selected, not the most expensive piece nor the most ostentatious, but a piece that all who assisted her had to agree would be a perfect piece for a young woman starting out in life. It was a single grotesque pearl, caged in a lattice of fine gold wires and suspended in a hoop of diamonds and sapphires.
Miss Jenkins handed over a black charge card (which was not in the name of Jenkins) and, once the charge had been cleared, accepted the small, discreetly wrapped package that the opener of doors handed her. This she placed in her handbag, at the same time pressing the call button on the small mobile phone concealed within.
As the door was opened for her she stepped out into the path of a large, slightly balding man. The two of them exchanged looks for a moment and she recognised the famous Detective Chief Inspector Mainley of New Scotland Yard. He looked at her for a moment with a feeling that he should recognise the elderly lady before him, then made his way towards the shop, the fourth upmarket jeweller he had visited that day. Miss Jenkins looked around seeming confused, then stepped into the path of a skateboarder who was proceeding rapidly down the road. By a miracle of manoeuvring the young man just managed to avoid a collision, though there was a very brief, minor contact between the two.
Miss Jenkins raised her umbrella and as she did a cab that had been cruising with its light off, lit up and pulled in to pick her up. Miss Jenkins climbed in, glancing down the road, to see the young skateboarder once again just miss a collision, this time with a uniformed nanny pushing her charge along. At this sight Miss Jenkins smiled, then told Stephen where she wanted to go.
The Chief Inspector showed his warrant card and was admitted to the shop. He requested the presence of the manager, explaining that he was on a routine crime prevention visit. As he waited he wondered to himself why he had the feeling he should have recognised the elderly lady he had seen leaving the store. Then he remembered: it had been eight years since he had last seen her, in the public gallery of the Old Bailey as he had given evidence. He knew what he had to do but sensed it was a waste of time.
In the back of the cab, which was making its way into the East End of London, Miss Jenkins took care of her appearance. The violet blue contact lenses that made her eyes so distinctive were removed, revealing her normal grey eyes. Also removed was the cheek padding which had given her face a much rounder, fuller appearance. The loose, slightly dull, as befits an older woman, wig of red hair came off revealing her grey hair below. She slipped out of the elegant Italian styled twin set and donned her serviceable tweed. For the second time that day the women who got out of Stephen’s cab bore no resemblance to the one who had got in.
Miss Jenkins entered a small eating-house in a London side street. Today it was empty; it was not a market day when the place would be full. She moved to the table at the back. As she passed, the woman behind the counter nodded to her, then poured scalding water from a boiler into a pot. Taking the pot and a mug to the table where Miss Jenkins had seated herself she placed them before the elderly lady.
“Good day, Aunty?”
“Think so, Hilda, but there was one hitch.”
The woman looked questioningly at Miss Jenkins.
“That plod Mainley walked in as I was leaving.”
Hilda looked worried. “Did he recognise you?”
“Can’t be sure; he seemed uncertain. If he had been sure he would have stopped me there and then.”
“Oh well, we will just have to cover it. ’Pos our Ruth will be in shortly.”
Miss Jenkins nodded. Just then an elderly man entered the café. He looked about for a moment and then sighting Miss Jenkins made his way to the table. Miss Jenkins stood to receive him.
“Edith, dear, how nice to see you again.” He kissed her on both cheeks. “I hear you had a good morning’s work.”
Miss Jenkins looked at him quizzically.
“Spoke briefly with Howard on the phone, he seemed pleased.”
“Well, I thought I did OK.”
“You always do, my dear.”
“There was a problem.”
“Yes my dear, Stephen communicated that fact. He saw him going in.”
He brought a thin brown envelope from his pocket and opened it, tipping the contents on the table.
“Return train tickets to Dover. The buffet attendant on the 9.30 will remember you. My sister-in-law sister’s youngest, good lad. You bought a fruit slice and complained about the amount of fruit in it.
“Bill for lunch at the Casa Espana: Seafood Salad and a pot of tea. You over-tipped the waitress. Nice girl, you remember Agnes? She’s doing six in Holloway at the moment; it’s her granddaughter.
“Maggie is on her way down there; will buy a couple of things and meet you back at the village.”
“Thanks, George, you seem to have sorted out most things.”
“I try, Edith. One has to be prepared, but it was bloody bad luck Mainley being there, though I heard he had been moved to the jewellery squad — crime prevention — a sideways promotion after that incident in Ealing. When was the last run in with him?”
Miss Jenkins looked misty-eyed for a moment. “Eight years ago at the Old Bailey, when they took Albert.”
George shook his head. “Yes, sixteen years, for that. Who would have believed it? In the old days one got two, three at the most. How is he?”
“Not too bad. He is on the island, you know.”
“Try to get down at least once a month but you know how it is.”
Again George nodded.
“And your Doris?”
“Out this September, luv. We’re not hanging around. Off to Slovenia, bought us a nice villa there.”
Miss Jenkins nodded; she would do the same when her Albert got out.
A young woman, looking rather like the nanny with whom the skateboarder had nearly collided, entered the café. After a quick look around she joined them at the table.
“Aunty, Uncle George,” she acknowledged, “nice haul. Uncle Howard says at least three hundred kay, face, and we should clear a hundred.”
Miss Jenkins nodded, she would have put the value higher, but she appreciated that Howard had his expenses.
“No problems, Ruth?” she asked.
“Naw, Aunty, the pass on was smooth. I saw Neil pick up the load from you, and he dropped them into the pushchair nicely.”
Miss Jenkins smiled at this praise for her favourite nephew and godson. She just wished that he would have come in to join them, but admitted that the fourteen year old was going to be far happier off on his skateboard.
* * * * *
The manager looked at the Chief Inspector with total disbelief.
“I was sitting with her all the time as she examined each piece; there is no way she could have switched them.”
“Don’t you believe it. Edith Jenkins is an expert. She could switch the crown off the Queen’s head during the opening of parliament if she put her mind to it. No doubt she has been in here before.”
The manager confirmed she had: six or seven times. She had bought five or six pieces.
“Some small items and one large value item?” the Chief Inspector asked.
The manager nodded.
“And she returned the large value item?”
“Yes,” the manager replied, “it was a wedding present, but seems the lady it was for was superstitious about opals.”
“She would have sold on what she bought. Doubt the whole thing cost her more than ten thousand pounds. How much have you lost?”
The manager told him, and asked when they could expect an arrest.
“Oh, there will be no arrest. I know that was Edith Jenkins I saw leaving, but I’d never be able to prove it.”
To be honest he was not too keen on trying to prove it. He had thought the sentence of sixteen years on Albert had been hard, but Albert had committed fraud on a multi-national luxury goods company... one that donated heavily to the party in government. Pressure had been applied to make sure that an example was made of him. Chief Inspector Mainley remembered that the same company owned this chain of upmarket jewellers.
* * * * *
Miss Jenkins settled down in the train on her way back to the village. Neil, the youth on the skateboard, sat opposite her. He was coming down for the weekend to help with the garden. It would be nice for her to have company for a few days, then she would be going to the island to visit Albert.
“Aunt Edith, did I do anything wrong, you have been awfully quiet?”
“No, Neil, not wrong. It’s just that you did not do as well as you should have. When you made that dip to pick up the load from me, I felt your hand go into the pocket. I know it was a transfer, but that does not matter. What would have happened if I had been a mark? We are going to have to work on your technique a bit, dear.”
She paused and looked at Neil, who seemed a bit dejected, then continued. “I must admit I do like the skateboard. Much better than the old not-looking-where-you’re-going technique.”
Neil nodded. He always looked forward to his weekends with his great-aunt. They were so instructive.
© 2014 Nigel Gordon
My thanks to Alien Son for the work he put in editing this for me.