Doing business without advertising is like winking at a girl in the dark. You know what you are doing, but nobody else does
(Steuart Henderson Britt, New York Herald Tribune, 30 October 1956)
after two pints of cask-conditioned ale in the Rose and Crown, Morse walked the short distance to Finders Keepers, where he was soon ushered through the outer office, past two young ladies busy with their VDUs, and into the inner sanctum of Mr Martin Buckby, the dark, smartly suited manager of Property Letting Services. It was fairly close to lunch-time, but the manager would be only too glad to help – of course he would.
Yes, his department was responsible for letting a good many of the Park Town properties, most of which had been converted from single homes into two, sometimes three, flats and were more often than not let out to graduates, occasionally to students. Naturally the accommodation varied, but some of the flats, especially those the ground floor – or first floor, as some of them called it were roomy, stylish, and well maintained. The letting year usually divided itself into two main periods: October to June, covering the academic year at Oxford University; and then June/July to the end of September, when very frequently various overseas tenants: interested in short-term leases. Advertisements for the availability of such accommodation were regularly placed in The Oxford Times, and occasionally in Property Weekly. But only advertised once, for the flats were almost invariably snapped up straightaway. Such adverts gave a brief description of the property available, and the price asked: about lb200-lb250 a week for a short-term let (at current and slightly less, proportionately, for a long-term let. Business in the first instance, was usually conducted by phone, often through agents; and someone – either the client himself or a representative of an agency – would go along to view the property ('Very important, Inspector!') before the paperwork was completed, either there in the firm's offices or, increasingly now, directly by fax interchange with countries overseas. A deposit would be lodged, a tenancy agreement signed, a reference given -that was how it worked. There was no guarantee of bona fides, of course, and basically one had to rely on gut-reaction; but the firm experienced very few problems, really. When the client was due to move in, a representative would go along to open the property, hand over keys, explain the workings of gas, electricity, stop-cocks, central heating, fuses, thermostats, everything, and to give the client a full inventory of the property's effects – this inventory to be checked and returned within seven days so that there could be no subsequent arguments about the complement of fish-knives or feather pillows. The system worked well. The only example of odd behaviour over the previous year, for example, had been the overnight disappearance of a South American gentleman who had taken his key with him – and absolutely nothing else. And since, as with all short-term lets, the whole of the rental was paid in advance, as well as an extra deposit of lb500, no harm had been done there – apart from the need to change the lock on the front door and to get a further clutch of keys cut.
'Did you report that to the police, sir?'
'No. Should I have done?'
He had a good grasp now of the letting procedure; yet his mind was always happier (he explained) with specific illustrations than with generalities; and if it were proper for him to ask, for example, what Dr McBryde was paying for the ground-floor flat at Seckham Villa…?
Buckby found a green folder in the filing cabinet behind him and quickly looked through it. 'Thirteen hundred pounds per month.'
'Phew! Bit steep, isn't it?'
'It's the going rate – and it's a lovely flat, isn't it? One of the best in the whole crescent.' Buckby picked out a sheet from the folder and read the specification aloud.
But Morse was paying scant attention to him. After all, that was the manager's job, wasn't it? To make the most of what Morse had seen with his own eyes as a pretty limited bit of Lebensraum. especially for a married couple with one infant – at least one infant.
'Didn't you just say that the maximum for a short-term let was two hundred and fifty pounds a week?'
Buckby grinned. 'Not for that place – well, you've seen it. And what makes you think it's a short-term let, Inspector?' The blood was tingling at the back of Morse's neck, and subliminally some of the specifications that Buckby had recited were beginning to register in his brain. He reached over and picked up the sheet.
Hall, living room, separate dining room, well-fitted kitchen, two bedrooms, studio/ study, bathroom, full gas CH, small walled garden
Two bedrooms… and a sick wife sleeping in one of them… studio… and a little girl sitting on a swing… God! Morse shook head in disbelief at his own idiocy.
‘I really came to ask you, sir, if you had any record of who was living in that property last July. But I think – I think – you're going to tell me that it was Dr Alasdair McBryde; that he hasn't got a wife; that the people upstairs have got a little dark-haired daughter; that the fellow probably hails from Malta-'
‘You've got some spare keys, sir?' asked Morse, almost despairingly
In front of Seckham Villa the Jaguar sat undisturbed; but inside there were to be no further sightings of Dr McBryde. Yet the little girl still sat on the swing, gently stroking her dolly's hair, and Morse unlocked the french window and walked over the grass towards her.
'What's your name?'
‘My name's Lucy and my dolly's name's Amanda.'
Do you live here, Lucy?'
‘Yes. Mummy and Daddy live up there.' Her bright eyes lifted to the top rear window.
‘Pretty dolly,' said Morse.
‘Would you like to hold her?'
'I would, yes – but I've got a lot of things to do just for the moment.'
Inside his brain he could hear a voice shouting, 'Help, Lewis!' and he turned back into the house and wondered where on earth to start.