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10: Boy with Bike

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Author Topic: 10: Boy with Bike  (Read 33 times)
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« on: June 02, 2023, 12:07:14 pm »

‘IT’S a pretty go,’ said Jas Bowels with relish, ‘and that’s the only possible thing to say, a pretty go. I’ve screwed the gentleman down in it and that’s a fact.’

He stood on the cobbles of the mews, a splendid figure in black fancy dress. His frock coat was a fraction longer than anyone else could have worn it without absurdity, but on him, his rippling white hair giving him dignity, it was superb. He stroked his good silk hat, not too shiny nor aggressively new, but strong and solid and sad-looking, with a soft hand.

‘I can see your eyes on me, Mr. Luke,’ he said, smiling at Charlie with fatherly tolerance. ‘I call these me Mourning Glory. It’s a pun of a kind, I daresay. It comforts the bereaved, you know; not the joke, the garments.’

The plain-clothes man, who looked more grief-stricken than any of the small male chorus of part-time mutes who busied themselves about the solid horse hearse which they had just trundled out of its coach-house, laughed bitterly.

‘You’re no comfort to me,’ he remarked unnecessarily. ‘Go on, tell us again now the Inspector’s here. Where is this here coffin you fetched out of the cellar of Portminster Lodge last night?’

‘At Number Fifty-nine, Lansbury Terrace, where we’re just off to now.’ The triumph in his voice would not be suppressed. It crept from under the heavy commiseration like a volatile oil. ‘If I’d only known you wanted to see it, Mr. Luke, I’d have cut off my right hand rather than have used it. I’d have been obliged to oblige you, I would really.’

Charlie Luke made a face like a smile.

‘Beautiful nature you’ve got, Bowels,’ he said. ‘The body is actually in it, is it? All the relatives standing round it at this very moment, I suppose?’

‘Kneelin’.’ There was not the faintest flicker of a smile in the innocent eyes. ‘They’re a deeply religious lot. Son’s a lawyer,’ he added as an afterthought.

The plain-clothes man’s dull eyes were lifted to meet his superior officer’s. There was no question in them. For the time being Jas had won.

‘He happened to need it this morning. It happened to fit. He happened to have an accident with the one he had made for a customer. He happened not to know we might be interested.’ He spoke drearily and turned up his coat collar against the cold wind which was streaming down the narrow untidy chasm of the mews.

‘You’ve put the words in me mouth, Mr. Dice,’ said Jas with pleased surprise. ‘It’s a funny thing, and I wasn’t going to mention it because it isn’t a nice thing to have happen, but the casket I’d made for the gentleman warped. It’s the green elm. Shocking stuff we’re getting nowadays. Water drips from it. “Why,” I said to Rowley, “Why, boy, that’s out of true,” I said. “There’ll be a crack in the bottom of that before we get it there.” “Worse nor that, Father,” the boy said to me. “That might go in the church.” Well, we didn’t want that because for one thing it’s liable to make a noise like a pistol shot. That would be a do and no mistake. “Lord, Rowley,” I said, “I’d never hold up my head again.” “And rightly,” said he. “And rightly,” I replied. “What’s best to do?” “There’s your masterpiece, Father,” he said, “just come from over the road.” “Well,” I said . . .’

‘Turn it up.’ Charlie Luke spoke without rancour. ‘Keep it for your reminiscences, we’ll just take one more look round the house if it’s not inconveniencing you.’

Mr. Bowels drew a handsome if over-large gold watch from a concealed pocket on his stomach.

‘Now that is a pity,’ he announced. ‘I can’t manage it, Mr. Luke, not unless we go down to Lansbury Terrace at a gallop, and that might be misunderstood and cause bad feeling. But as luck will ’ave it, I’ve got my brother-in-law in the kitchen. He’s setting over the fire with a ’eavy ’ead. He’ll be pleased to show you round and be a witness.’ He paused, a knowing flicker twisting his tiny mouth. ‘Not that you and me don’t trust each other, but I know how you police gentlemen like a householder to come round with you in case of any word out of place later. You go in and say, “Mr. Lugg, Mr. Bowels sent us,” and he’ll show you round from crypt to belfry, as you might say. He’ll be happy to,’ he added with malice.

‘Very well, we’ll do that.’ Luke made no secret of his satisfaction. ‘See you after the party, Bowels.’

The silky white head shook sadly.

‘You didn’t ought to joke, Mr. Luke, not on this subject,’ he said with apparent sincerity. ‘It’s my trade and I take it cheerfully, but it’s very serious to the gentleman concerned. He’s not laughing.’

‘Isn’t he?’ said Charlie Luke, and the bones of his skull stood out as he drew his hand over his thin face, dragging the flesh away from them.

Jas started and became entirely blank.

‘I don’t think that’s very nice,’ he said stiffly as he turned away.

They found Mr. Lugg in the kitchen, but he was not alone. Mr. Campion, who sat opposite him in a high-backed armchair, rose as they came in and apologized.

‘I saw you chatting among the crows and so I wandered round the front and through the shop,’ he explained. ‘Lugg says they handed him a Mickey Finn last night.’

A pale blear-eyed bundle of resentment peered up at the newcomers from a basket chair. Mr. Lugg, clad in his best suit and spats, was yet collarless and unbuttoned. He was very angry.

‘A Guinness and two half bitters, I ask you. Me!’ he said with venom. ‘I went orf like one of me brother-in-law’s customers and now I feel like one. That’s typical of Jas, absolutely typ. Talk about your dead sister until you’re all crying and then slip you the knock-out drops. In ’is own ’ouse, too, do you notice that? In ’is own ’ouse! A woman, a so-called ’elpless woman, wouldn’t ’ave done a thing like that.’

Somewhat surprisingly, it was Sergeant Dice who responded most satisfactorily to this outburst.

‘Put it there,’ he said, holding out his hand. ‘That’s sense.’

Lugg was gratified, despite his troubles.

‘Pleased to meet you,’ he said, bestowing a bunch of sausage-shaped fingers upon his new champion. Mr. Campion, glancing apprehensively at Charlie Luke, found him charmed with the incident. He hastened to introduce him and Lugg relaxed. ‘There’s nothing ’ere,’ he said to Dice. ‘I’ve staggered round the whole tuppenny-ha’penny outfit and there’s not a wax flower out of place. I don’t know what the old hypocrite is up to and that’s a fact, but whatever it is it’s something extra.’

‘Extraordinary?’ Campion suggested.

Lugg gave him a glance of pure reproach.

‘No,’ he said. ‘I speak English, I ’ope. Extra, meaning something else. Something that’s nothing to do with the little bit of now-it’s-your-turn over the road. Sit down quietly if you’re Christians. I can ’ear a fly stamp this morning.’

When they had settled themselves he explained very carefully.

‘Jas is up to something extra, nothing to do with worm-shovelling and nothing to do with Palinode. We knew that, I should ’ope, when we got the letter from ’im in the first place. Jas wants the excitement in the big ’ouse cleared up quick, so that the rozzers---beg your pardon, Mr. Dice, and you too, Mr. Luke; that was common---so that the Force can go ’ome and read the congratulation telegrams and ’e can get on with ’is own lark, whatever it is. That was why ’e wrote at all, the poor silly basket.’ He was about to tap the table by way of emphasis, but thought better of it just in time. ‘What ’e didn’t realize was that my employer ’ere would make a job of it, and ’e certainly didn’t expect me to come for a brotherly stay. When I was still on the doorstep I said to ’im, as ’e was standing there looking at me and me little bag, “You’ll ’ave to tie your own jaw up, chum, if you ain’t more pleased than this.” Of course he pulled hisself together at once. He thinks I’m young Rowley’s rich uncle. This ’ere ’arris tweed I’ve got on smells of the ’eather, expensive.’

He was recovering rapidly. The little black eyes were sparkling, almost, and Mr. Campion, observing a certain raptness in Charlie Luke’s dark face, felt deeply relieved.

‘Luring us!’ continued Lugg, getting into his stride. ‘Luring us down ’ere, ’e ’ints ’e could tell us something. ’E could, and it’s not a lot. I got it out of ’im before I’d been in the parlour to see the photos of poor Beatt’s ’eadstone.’

‘About the betting?’ Campion put the question sharply and all three turned to look at him.

‘So young Viscount Clever’s found it, ’as ’e?’ Mr. Lugg was sufficiently nettled to forget that they were not alone. He made an acrobatic recovery. ‘Don’t think I was addressing you, sir,’ he said, thick white lids modestly veiling his bloodshot eyes. ‘I was commenting, to meself only. That was all Jas had to offer us after raising our ’opes with ’ints. Miss Ruth Palinode used to like to put a bob on an ’orse like anyone else might. Jas thought it was interesting because it was secret. Ignorant persons often make that kind of mistake.’

Luke glanced from man to master with a collector’s appreciation.

‘How did you get on to that, Mr. Campion?’

The pale eyes behind the horn-rims looked vaguely apologetic.

‘Divination,’ he said modestly. ‘Everyone kept telling me she had a vice, wasn’t an alcoholic, and was so mathematical it suggested a system, that’s all. Rowley put the cash on for her with a street bookmaker, I suppose.’

‘Whose name is Theobald.’ Mr. Lugg was still a little sulky. ‘She only staked a bob or two a day so Rowley didn’t take much notice until about a month after she was dead. He’s like his ma in that; slow. He did it out of pure kindness, too. That’s Beatt again. But I expect ’e twisted the poor old ’aybag; that’s Jas.’

‘Fascinating. Did she ever win?’

‘Now and again. Lost in the long run, like most women do.’

‘That’s a fact.’ Sergeant Dice spoke with quiet fervour and was silent again.

‘Yes, well, that explains a lot.’ Charlie Luke’s ace-of-diamonds eyes were snapping again. ‘Money’s tight. If one member of the family goes bust the burden falls on the rest. All shut up together. Nothing coming in. Silly woman chucking the stuff away. Worry. Desperation. Someone got to do something to stop her . . .’ In full flight he paused to consider. ‘How’s that for a motive?’ he said, looking at Campion. ‘Could be. No? Not good.’

‘No motive for murder is exactly first-class,’ said Campion diffidently. ‘Some of the most ingenious practitioners seem to have done their best work for odd half-crowns. What is Jas up to, Lugg? Do you know?’

‘Not yet, cock. Give us an hour.’ Lugg was truculent. ‘I’ve only bin ’ere a ’alf-hour when I’ve bin meself. I don’t go by divvies. I ’ave to use me intelligence. Someone come in last night soon after I arrived and Jas saw ’im or ’er alone at the front door. I didn’t get a glimp. ’E come back smiling with those two gravestones of ’is sticking out of ’is disgusting mouth, and said it was business, meaning another death, you see. What a ’orrible job, eh? ’E’s got just the mind for it. But ’e was shook. ’E was sweating. Smiling and sweating. ’E’s up to something, shifting booze perhaps.’

‘What gave you that idea?’ Charlie Luke was on to the suggestion like a terrier.

Lugg remained enigmatic. ‘It crossed me mind, that’s all,’ he said. ‘It’s something ’eavy that ’as to be carried careful. Besides, ’e was telling me one of ’is ’appy tales. ’E sees a lot of fun in ’is job, that’s ’is story. It’s about the Balsamic ’otel. They don’t like anythink unpleasant to appear in that place, it’s far too lah-di-perishing-dah. So, should a visitor snuff it, and they don’t want anyone refined to be upset by the sight of a coffin being took down the stairs, they send for Jas and Son, and down the stiff comes in the body of a grand piano.’

‘I’ve heard of that,’ said Campion. ‘How does that lead us to the odd half bottle?’

‘ ’Otel business,’ said Lugg huffily. ‘I’m not telling you a fact. It’s not even an idea. All I’ll commit meself to saying now is that Jas is on to something private and that the knockings-off over the road are separate.’

As the final rumble of the rich voice died away the door behind them burst open and a small grimy face, working with dreadful glee, appeared on the threshold.

‘You’re the police, aren’t you?’ He was a small boy, nine at most, and peaky, with the mouth of an angel and, at the moment at any rate, the eyes of a Pekingese. ‘Come on, you’ll be the first there. They’ve sent up the street for a copper but I knew you was ’ere. Come on! Dead man!’

The response was immediate and gratifying. Everyone shot up, including Mr. Lugg, who reeled but recovered.

‘Where’s this, son?’ Charlie Luke appeared enormous as he looked down at the child.

The boy seized him by the skirt of his jacket and pulled. He was all but incoherent with delight and importance.

‘Dahn ’ere, dahn ’ere! Dahn ’ere in the mews. Come on, be the first. Got yer badge?’

Even as he leapt for the door Dice shot a savage glance at his new friend tottering on the hearthrug.

‘That’s how women bring ’em up these days,’ he said, and followed Campion and the D.D.I., who were already down the three worn steps which led from the back door of the Bowels’s residence to the north, or best, end of Apron Mews.

The child raced over the cobbles, dragging Charlie Luke. A knot of people hung round a battered grey door which stood open some little way down the yard. The rest of the narrow place was deserted. Bowels and Son and their attendant crows had vanished.

The crowd made way for Luke, who paused long enough to hand his guide firmly to a woman in the doorway. As he and Campion came into the dimly lit shed which had once been a stable and now appeared to house nothing but a few disused garden ornaments and an ancient motor-bicycle, they thought at first that the place was empty, but a ladder in the corner led to a loft above and through the square opening came the sound of sobbing.

The crowd behind them was silent, as fascinated crowds are at critical moments. Campion was the first to reach the ladder. He came up through the dusty boards to confront an unexpected scene. A shaft of watery London light crept through a cobweb-hung window set high in the whitewashed wall and fell on a splash of fair-isle pullover half hidden by a group of nervous workmen who bent over it. Kneeling on an oil-stained raincoat by the body’s side was a shabby figure with blue-black hair. Miss White was crying her heart out.

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