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14: The Two Chairs

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Author Topic: 14: The Two Chairs  (Read 36 times)
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« on: June 03, 2023, 06:04:56 am »

A LITTLE over an hour later, when it was very nearly dark and the yellow lights of Apron Street were fairylike among the glistening blue curtains of the wet evening, Mr. Campion pocketed the careful letter he had been writing to Superintendent Yeo and let himself quietly out of his bedroom into the chill gloom of Portminster Lodge.

Long experience had taught him the value of the written word when definite information was being requested, and he was now in search of Lugg, who was to be his messenger. As he moved silently down the dark staircase he went over the list once more. Its length was formidable and it began with the modest demand for details of the crime for which Looky Jeffreys was serving a term in Charlsfield Gaol, together with a list of his known or suspected associates, and the name and rank of the officer who had brought him to justice.

Other items included an inquiry as to any recent addition to the interesting record possessed by Bella Musgrave, and a simple botanical query concerning the common weed henbane, with especial reference to Hyde Park.

He feared that the final question was destined to irritate.

Lastly, he had written: ‘What have you been looking for lately which is (a) five to six feet long, (b) distinctive in shape, (c) fragile? Silks or Old Masters, both in rolls, occur to me, but it is quite probable that someone at your end will recognize from this description some delicate and valuable piece of machinery whose manufacture is either strictly controlled or actually illegal. Almost any pertinent suggestion will be gratefully received. We only ask because we want to know.’

He tiptoed across the hall and succeeded in getting out of the house without being waylaid by Renee. The iron gate was wet to his touch and the fine rain was well on its way to soaking him by the time he reached the pavement. He was just approaching the chastely decorated window of Jas Bowels’s establishment when he happened to glance back across the road to Apron Street’s gayer side. The china swan in the dairy window shone in the honey-coloured light. The greengrocer’s shop was bright with green and yellow and red. The basement window under the dimmer expanse of Doctor Smith’s curtains was vivid where Frenchie worked on at his last, and the vase of blue water in Pa Wilde’s crowded showcase glinted like a huge amethyst.

The chemist’s doorway was an opal arch in a multi-coloured frame, through which, as he glanced at it, a familiar mountain appeared. Lugg stepped into the road, looked both ways and hurried back again.

Campion darted across the greasy road after him and stepped out of the street into a small clear space set in the midst of an unbelievable jumble of cartons, bottles, boxes and jars which reached the discoloured ceiling on all four sides.

There was a counter, but the effect was no more than a hole in the debris, and on the dark wall behind it racks and shelves, drawers and boxes, all crammed with dusty packages, stretched wherever the eye could reach.

On his right a recess bristling with bottles suggested a dispensary, and beside this a tunnel, festooned with cards on which pillboxes and perfume vials were fastened, led to mysterious regions beyond.

There was no sign of Lugg, nor indeed of anyone else, but as his step sounded on the worn linoleum Charlie Luke’s harassed face appeared in the opening above the barricade of merchandise protecting the dispensary. He was hatless and his short wiry black hair was tousled as if he had run his hands through it.

‘This has torn it,’ he said. ‘Where’s the circus, sir?’

Mr. Campion sniffed the air. Above the thousand odours which filled the shop there was one which was urgent and alarming and which caught at his throat.

‘No connexion with any other firm. I just dropped in,’ he said. ‘What have you done? Upset the almond essence?’

Luke straightened himself. He was rattled and his eyes were wretched.

‘I thought you must have got the message, although I didn’t see how you could have got here in thirty seconds. I’ve done it this time. I ought to be shot, strung up and shot. ’Strewth, I could do it myself! Look at this little lot.’

He flattened himself against a toppling mountain of medical bric-à-brac and Campion, stretching his neck to see over a wall of cosmetics, peered down into the well of the alcove. He could just see two feet drawn up horribly into the cuffs of very dirty and frayed striped trousers.

‘The chemist?’

‘Pa Wilde.’ The D.D.I.’s voice was husky. ‘I wasn’t even questioning him, not as you’d say questioning. I’d hardly begun. He was still behind the counter. He gave me a funny little look. . . .’ He made his eyes bulge and turned them slightly upwards, producing a startling picture of helpless underhand terror. ‘. . . Then he nipped round here. He was always very quick on his feet, like a spadger and about as scruffy. “Just a minute, Mr. Luke,” he said, squeaking as he always did, “just a minute, Mr. Luke,” and as I turned towards him, not angrily, not even suspiciously, he pushed something into his mouth and then . . . oh lord!’

‘Hydrocyanic acid.’ Campion stood back. ‘I should come out of it if I were you. It’s powerful stuff and there’s no air in there. Don’t hang over it, for God’s sake. Were you alone?’

‘Not quite, thank God. I had a witness.’ Luke came round through the tunnel into the body of the shop. A card of babies’ dummies scraped his hair. He was pale and his shoulders were hunched as he played noisily with the coins in his trousers pockets. ‘Your chap Lugg is about here somewhere, phoning you probably from the back room. We came in together. I met him on the corner, as arranged. I had to go down to the inquest on Edward after you left the Platelayers. Pure formality. Adjourned for twenty-one days. But I had to be there.’

‘Bella Musgrave left here in a van about an hour and a half ago, I should say,’ Campion remarked.

‘You’ve seen Lugg, then?’

‘No. I saw her.’

‘Oh.’ Luke looked at him curiously. ‘So did he. I left him to keep an eye on the place. Like a ruddy fool I decided I’d attend to Pa Wilde myself. Lugg was to wait for me outside the Thespis. Just after four he saw the van drive up and take a packing-case on board. It was heavy and Pa gave the men a hand.’

‘Men?’

‘Yes, there were two of them, both sitting in front. Nothing out of the way about that. Chemists have empties, same as brewers.’

‘Did Lugg see them?’

‘I don’t think close enough to recognize. He didn’t say. He didn’t suspect them at first, but as soon as the case was loaded the old woman hopped out of the shop and into the van after it. Lugg couldn’t have stopped her if he’d had any right to. He steamed up, hoping to have at least a chat, but they were away in double-quick time. He got the number, but a fat lot of good that’ll be.’

Mr. Campion nodded. ‘That’s what I thought. I jotted it down but it’s bound to be faked. Did he tell you anything about the shape of this packing-case?’

‘Not that I remember.’ Luke had other worries. ‘But he’ll be here in a minute and so will the outfit. I’ve sent for the police surgeon this time. I wouldn’t have had this happen, not for a thirty-thousand win in the pools.’

Campion produced a cigarette case. ‘My dear chap, he could hardly have “talked” with more force,’ he said. ‘It’s very suggestive. D’you remember what you said to him exactly?’

‘Yes, it wasn’t much. I came in with Lugg behind me.’ He sketched in a balloon absently with his hand. ‘I said, “Hallo, Pa, what about this girl-friend of yours? D’you know who she is at all?” He said, “Girl-friend, Mr Luke? I’ve not had a girl-friend for thirty years. A man of my age, in this profession, gets a very depressed view of women after a time and that’s a fact.” ’ The D.D.I. sniffed. ‘He always said “and that’s a fact”. Kind of a signature-tune, poor old basket. I said, “Come, come, Pa, what about Bella, the human teadrop?” He stopped what he was doing, which was mucking about with the little light he used to melt sealing-wax, and looked at me over his nose-nippers. “I don’t follow you,” he said. “That’s one mercy,” said I, “or we should look a couple of daisies. I’m talking about the mourning Musgrave. Don’t be a mug, Pa, she’s just left here with her box.” “Her box, Mr. Luke?” he said. “Pa,” said I, “this is coyness. What’s she done? Left you for Jas Bowels?” ’

He was acting the scene as he recalled it and his ferocious good humour was vivid and rather dreadful.

‘I saw him begin to shake,’ he went on, ‘and I thought he was unexpectedly windy, but it didn’t register on me as it ought to have done.’ He pushed a hand over his face and through his hair as if he were trying to rub the whole thing off his head. His voice was doleful.

‘I told him, “Don’t deny the girl, chum. We’ve seen her and her little black handbag.” God knows why I put that bit in. Lugg had just mentioned it to me as we came up the road, I suppose. Anyway, it was that which did it. After I said that he gave me the little look I’ve told you about and said, “Just a minute, Mr. Luke,” and came over here. I could see his head through all these corn-cures. I actually saw him put the stuff in his mouth, and even then I didn’t catch on. There was no reason for it, you see. Then he made a noise like a pheasant and went down among the bottles, while I stood here like a perishing pillarbox with my mouth wide open.’

‘Unnerving,’ Campion agreed. ‘What was the gallant Lugg doing?’

‘Standin’ like a gasometer, with me mouth shut,’ said a thick voice from the tunnel. ‘What did you expect us to be? Mind readers? There was no reason for it, cock. He must ’ave ’ad a conscience like a salmon tin in a dust bucket. The gentleman ’ere hadn’t even raised his eyebrows, let alone ’is little finger.’

Luke swung round on Campion.

‘I can’t believe it was necessary,’ he said. ‘I mean I can’t believe he’d done anything very serious. He hadn’t the guts. The hyoscine may have come from here.’ He waved a hand at the farrago around them. ‘But I never suspected him of administering it.’ He walked round into the dispensary again and beckoned to Campion to follow him.

As they stood looking down at the hideous body, which in contorted death seemed so much smaller than it could reasonably have been expected to be in life, he shrugged with sudden impatience.

‘It’s no good,’ he said. ‘I can’t show you what I mean. He was a silly, vain old chap, not the size for anything big. That’s no more like the poor beast than a heap of old clothes. See that little dyed moustache? That was the pride of his life.’ He bent over the undistinguished face which was now a deep and bluish red. ‘Looks like a piece of fluff picked up on a bus.’

Campion was thoughtful. ‘Perhaps it wasn’t so much what he’d done as what he knew,’ he suggested. ‘Did you recognize the men who drove off with Bella, Lugg?’

‘I don’t know.’ The fat man spoke softly. ‘I was some way down the street, you see. The chap who first ’opped out and came in ’ere was a puffick stranger, that I do know. But the second chap, ’oo must ’ave bin driving---the truck faced up the street, away from me---did remind me of someone. Peter George Jelf, that was the name that came into me ’ead. Reunion, that’s what this case is, cock.’

‘Dear me.’ Mr. Campion spoke mildly. ‘As you say, how the old faces gather. Yes indeed.’

He returned to Luke, his eyes narrowed.

‘The Fuller gang was just before your time, I fancy,’ he murmured. ‘They blossomed in the late twenties and made quite a name for themselves as being remarkably unchoosy. Peter George Jelf was third in command until he went down for seven years on a robbery-with-violence charge, qualifying at the same time for the cat. He was never a first-class mind, as they say in some circles, but he was very thorough and not without courage.’

‘ ’Ired malefactor,’ put in Lugg with relish. ‘The judge said that, not me. This chap today ’ad ’is way of walking. It might not ’ave been ’im but I think it was.’

The D.D.I. made a note on the tattered packet he had drawn from his pocket.

‘That’s another little question for the back room, if H.Q. is answering any more questions for me. A poor view is going to be taken of this lot and I don’t blame them. I’d sack myself . . . if I had a good man to take over.’

‘Have you got a mite of bicarb?’

The question, uttered from just inside the doorway, startled them both. Mr. Congreve stood teetering on the mat, his lip wobbling and his wet eyes bright and shrewd.

Campion had closed the door after him when he had first come in but had not fastened the old-fashioned bolts. The man had edged in so softly that they had not heard him.

‘Where’s the chemist?’ The harsh yet hollow voice was unpleasant in the silent shop. He took a step forward inquisitively.

Charlie Luke thrust out a long arm and picked up a squat bottle of white tablets from the front of the counter. The only visible words at that distance were ‘Triple Strength’. He glanced at it absently and held it up.

‘There you are, Pa,’ he said. ‘Cascara. Better for you. Pay next time.’

Mr. Congreve made no attempt to take the offering. He had ceased to advance, but his thin neck was outstretched and his eyes were moving.

‘I’d like to see the chemist,’ he said with a confiding leer. ‘He understands me.’ The odour in the shop caught his attention and he sniffed deeply and with curiosity. ‘Where is he?’

‘Gone downstairs.’ The D.D.I. spoke without ulterior thought. ‘Call later.’ He strode across the room, placed the bottle firmly in the old man’s hand, and turned him round. ‘Mind the step,’ he said.

Mr. Congreve reached the pavement just as a group of solid hurrying men bore down upon the doorway from a police car which had just drawn up. The last they saw of him was his eyes glinting with excitement and his blob of a lower lip quivering as he mumbled to himself.

Mr. Campion touched Lugg’s sleeve and they stepped back out of the way of the newcomers and drifted quietly down the tunnel of cartons to a half-glass door in the gloom. Lugg kicked it gently open.

‘This is where ’e lived,’ he said. ‘What a life, eh? Never got away from ’is work.’ He waved a plump hand at a scene which resembled an alchemist’s shop devised by some enthusiastic stock company. A small bed in one corner was the only sign of domesticity. The rest was an untidy mass of bottles, saucers, cooking pans and kettles, carelessly piled on some dusty sticks of Victorian furniture.

‘No wonder the lady friends didn’t say,’ Mr Lugg observed virtuously. ‘This lot must have bin something to cry over even for Bella. No need to go through there, that’s the kitchen and it’s the same story. There’s only one spot of interest and that’s on the next floor. I don’t know ’ow long we’ve got before the busies come trampin’ in.’

‘How true,’ Mr. Campion agreed and he turned across the tiny room to a doorway through which he had caught a glimpse of a dark staircase.

‘I’ve bin over the ’ole place and most of it ’asn’t bin opened for years.’ Lugg was panting, but cheerful. ‘The top floor ’asn’t got a stick in it and the front room on this landin’, which is furnished as a bedroom, is nothink but a moth-farm. The only place worth seein’ is this little outfit ’ere.’

He led the way across a depressing passage and threw open a door on the left. It was pitch dark inside but he found a light switch and an unexpectedly vivid glare shone from the single bulb in the centre of the ceiling. Campion stepped into a narrow room whose only window had been boarded over very carefully. It was almost empty. The floor was uncarpeted and a long narrow table stood against the farther wall. By its side sprawled an old-fashioned basket-chair filled with shabby cushions, and there was nothing else at all save two wooden upright chairs. They were arranged in the centre of the floor, facing each other a few feet apart.

Mr. Campion looked about him.

‘How very suggestive,’ he said.

‘What is it? A board room?’ Lugg was mildly sarcastic but he was puzzled. ‘Two gals sits playin’ cats’ cradles and a bloke sits watchin’ them from the armchair?’ he offered.

‘I should hardly think so. Is there any packing material anywhere in the house? Rock-wool and so on?’

‘There’s a back place full o’ shavings, just be’ind the kitchen, but there’s none up ’ere, cock, not a trace.’

Campion said nothing. He wandered round the room eyeing the boards, which were comparatively clean. Lugg’s face was glistening. He looked remarkably happy.

‘Tell you one thing,’ he said. ‘Jas ’as bin ’ere, I’ll lay to that.’

Campion turned to him eagerly. ‘How do you know?’

The vast white cheeks had the grace to colour. ‘It ain’t evidence, exactly. At any rate it’s not a finger-print. But you look at them cushions in the chair. That chemist feller was a little chap. Someone with a base of substance ’as sat there, my lad.’

‘It’s a thought.’ Campion’s thin mouth widened. ‘You ought to do a monograph on it. As a science it’s young. Needs a lot of data. Put it up to Yeo and see what he says. It would be informative to hear him, anyway. Any other ideas?’

‘ ’E’s bin ’ere.’ Lugg was obstinate. ‘ ’E smokes them little whiffs. I smelt them when I first come in. It’s gorn orf now. Don’t you think ’e’s bin ’ere?’

Mr. Campion paused, a tall figure between the two chairs so curiously placed.

‘Oh, yes, he’s been here,’ he said. ‘Quite a habit with him, I should think. The question is, what does he put in it?’

‘Put in what?’

‘In the box,’ said Mr. Campion, and he described the shape with his hand. It was long and narrow, and one end of it rested on either chair.
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