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21: Homework

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« on: June 04, 2023, 06:42:50 am »

CHARLIE Luke poured the last of the water over the Captain’s grey and nodding head.

‘Hopeless,’ he said succinctly and sat back on his heels. ‘The old nitwhisker’s had it. Must have drunk the bottle without counting. He’ll have to sleep that lot off before we get a peep out of him.’

He nodded to the young detective who had been assisting him and together they lifted the old man on to his narrow chintz-covered bed. Mr. Campion surveyed an unregenerate scene.

The large and pleasant bed-sitting-room, a trifle old-maidish in its little deceptions and reticences, was in a state of wild disorder. Ever since he and Luke had come in, to find the Captain lying in his armchair, a corkscrew and an almost empty whisky bottle at his feet, a glass clutched to his military bosom, and the noise of trumpets issuing from his open mouth, the process of disarrangement had continued.

The young detective, arriving providentially with a message for Luke, had responded to the emergency with experience and enthusiasm. Luke, too, had his private methods of reviving the alcoholic, but the old Captain, opening an unfocusing eye from time to time and offering occasional inarticulate words, had defeated them.

Faced with the ugly and the inconvenient, the shameful or the embarrassing, he had taken refuge in his secret bottle, hoarded carefully in the old leather hatbox which now stood open on the floor of his modest wardrobe, and it had not let him down. At the moment he was away somewhere, temporarily safe from the sordid present.

Charlie Luke stood at the end of the bed, his chin thrust out and his dark face gloomy.

‘Silly old basket,’ he said without animosity. ‘He gave me the cold horribles when I saw him. I thought he’d done a Pa Wilde on me. I don’t entirely care for everybody’s grandpa taking knock-out drops the moment I put my nose in. He’s all right, Campion, he’s all right. He’s all right, don’t you think?’

It occurred to Campion with some surprise that he needed reassurance.

‘I think you can leave it that he’ll live to drink again,’ he murmured. ‘I feel it may be Renee that he’s frightened of, don’t you?’

‘Renee?’ Luke glanced round the dismantled room. ‘Lumme! I shall be the enemy there. Clean up a bit while you keep an eye on him, Pollit, will you? We’ll be just across the landing.’

He led the way to Campion’s room, while the detective kicked the worst of the debris under the bed.

‘There’s a letter for you from the Super,’ Luke said, throwing it across, ‘and a couple of memos for me from Porky at the station. Now what? Di-dah, di-dah, di-dah—huh!’

He read, as he did everything else, with a great deal of action. The typewritten sheets of blue paper vibrated like live things in his hands, and when they flapped over were as wild as washing on a line.

Campion opened his own envelope more demurely and he was still engrossed when the D.D.I. rose and wandered down the room. He moved the blind an inch or so and pressed his face to the glass.

‘There’s still a crowd,’ he said. ‘They think we’re going to make an arrest, you know, poor perishers!’ He was silent for a moment and came back at last to sit by Campion again. ‘I don’t like this situation,’ he said. ‘No one’s making any money out of it. Not real money. I’m talking about Jas’s lark. That’s not right.’

He spread out his memorandum sheets again.

‘Pa Wilde was in debt all round; owed the wholesalers, the gas company, and the bank. We’ve been over everything, and if he was paid for whatever he was doing he certainly didn’t hoard it, pay his bills with it, or, as far as we can see, even eat with it. The doctor’s report here says “under-nourished”. Poor old blighter! I liked him because he was so bloody, if you see what I mean.’

‘Blackmail?’ Campion suggested.

‘Seems so.’ Charlie Luke shook his head. ‘May have done anything in his time. He was a chemist, wasn’t he?’ He tipped the contents of an imaginary bottle into the ghost of a glass. ‘May once have slipped somebody the wrong dope or tried to get a girl out of trouble. Either of those would have given someone a hold over him. But neither of them explain what the poor old bit of fancywork was up to at that particular moment. I mean to say, I’ve been to his shop for a chat dozens of times in the past year, but that was the first occasion when he wrote himself off because of it.’

Campion coughed discreetly.

‘Dear fellow indubitably though he was, one can’t help feeling he was involved in something reasonably serious, don’t you think?’ he suggested.

‘Maybe.’ The subject appeared to rankle with Luke.

‘Then there’s that couple of worm-shovellers over the road,’ he went on more hopefully. ‘We’re taking them to pieces now. I beg your pardon, perhaps you’ve got something there?’

He looked so wistfully at Campion’s letter that its owner was sorry to disappoint him.

‘Nothing constructive at all, I’m afraid,’ he said truthfully. ‘I asked a few questions and in almost every case the answer is, vaguely, no. Looky Jeffreys died in the prison infirmary before disclosing anything more about Apron Street save that he did not want to go up it. He was arrested while committing a singularly inefficient burglary, which he is thought to have undertaken alone. The man who pulled him in has been lent to the Sûreté and is now out of the country.’

‘That’s ruddy helpful.’

‘I then inquired about Bella Musgrave. The police still keep an eye on her, but it is years since she stepped over the edge. She and her two deaf old sisters keep a little dyeing and cleaning agency in Stepney. At the moment she is away from home. Her sisters do not know where she is and they expect her back at any moment.’

‘Dyeing and cleaning . . .’ said Charlie Luke thoughtfully. ‘In poor districts all those little places make their living out of mourning. Consistent woman.’

‘Then there’s this.’ Campion took three closely-typed sheets from the rest. ‘I asked if the chemistry boys could tell us if hyoscine could be obtained from henbane by an amateur. This is their report. Yeo seems to have translated it for us on the bottom here.’

Luke screwed up his eyes to see the pencilled note.

‘ “This would appear to mean no,” ’ he read aloud and sniffed. ‘Everybody’s helping and nothing’s moving, as the donkey said to the barn door. Is that the lot, sir?’

‘Very nearly, and there’s no sign of Lugg, which is ominous.’ Campion forbore to mention the other note in Yeo’s handwriting which had prefaced the reply to his own.

‘Fear we shall be forced to send Holly unless you can pull someone in pretty damn quick. Have been trying to get leave to come myself but not an earthly. Things v. touchy here.’

Luke closed his eyes. ‘That chap Lawrence is behaving peculiarly and he certainly can’t talk straight. But do you know what I think about him?’ He opened them again and stared seriously at Campion. ‘I don’t believe he could kill pussy,’ he said. ‘Come in---oh, it’s you, George. Mr. Campion, this is Sergeant Picot. He’s been over at Bowels’s. Any luck, George?’

The newcomer, who came purposefully into the room as if he were about to effect a nice quiet arrest, was a plump, well-girt man with a fresh face and thick brown hair growing strongly on a square head. He exuded reliability and respect for the law and the rights of the citizen as some men exude just the opposite. At the moment he was very serious and a little shocked.

‘Evening, sir; evening, sir.’ He got the greetings over with bird-swiftness and dived into an inside pocket for a notebook. ‘Well, we’ve been there, sir,’ he went on. ‘We’ve seen them both. We’ve been over the premises again and we’ve taken a thorough look at the books. I must admit at once I can’t find anything wrong.’ He looked the Chief Inspector severely in the eye. ‘It seems a very nicely run business.’

‘Does it?’ Luke spoke without enthusiasm. ‘Books okay, are they?’

‘Kept beautifully, sir. It’s a small firm. They work in a small way and aren’t called upon to do anything fancy. Haven’t had a cremation, for instance, for the last five years.’

Luke nodded. In dejection he was as picturesque as at the height of exuberance. His shoulders were hunched and some of the life seemed to have vanished even from his hair.

‘Mr. Campion wondered if he had imported a body lately, collected it for relatives for burial here.’

‘I follow you, sir.’ Sergeant Picot’s censorious eyes acknowledged Mr. Campion’s existence. ‘That is what I was looking for. But no, nothing. They’ve done nothing of the kind, he tells me, since nineteen-thirty, and his records prove it. Undertaking isn’t the ideal business for hanky-panky. There are so many checks, registrars’ certificates and so on.’ He coughed and continued bluntly: ‘Frankly, gentlemen, I don’t see why he should be employed to smuggle anything. Whatever the stuff was, it would have to be got into the country without him, and once it was here I should have thought a lorry would have served the purpose better. No one notices goods delivered by a lorry; but everyone takes a bit of a look at a coffin.’ He shook his head. ‘I don’t see the point of it.’

‘Don’t you, George?’ Luke was grinning savagely to himself. ‘You didn’t see the casket with the gold what-nots?’

‘No, sir.’ Picot folded back his notebook as he spoke. ‘I’ve got the description, which, if I may say so, is, after all, not a hundred per cent specific. “Ebony or very dark finish; heavy gilt ornamentation; plate bearing name Edward Bon Chretin Palinode, now probably removed.” I inspected four ornamented caskets all in light wood. Mr. Bowels, sen., admitted to removing a coffin from a cellar he rented in this house, but says he used it for a job in Lansbury Terrace. We can get a description from witnesses, perhaps, but for proof we’ll have to apply for an exhumation order. I didn’t think you’d feel like doing that, sir, especially as nothing seems to turn on it.’

Luke grimaced at Campion.

‘Little blast of fresh air, isn’t he?’ he said. ‘So sane. What about this hotel work of Bowels’s?’

‘The grand piano top, sir?’ Picot frowned. ‘He didn’t ought to have done that, although there’s no law against it. He was very frank about it. It happened over a year ago. The piano top belonged to the Balsamic Hotel, not to him, and he boxed the corpse very decently as soon as he got it to his place. He has one shed done out as a sort of private mortuary. It’s all above board, known to the authorities and so on.’

‘What did he carry it in? Has he got a truck?’ Campion put the question curiously.

‘No, sir. These are his vehicles.’ Picot’s notebook was in use again. ‘There’s two hearses, one better than the other, both horse-drawn. It’s not a wealthy district, you see, and the locals take their dying seriously. They’re conservative about horses at funerals. For weddings they like a car. Then there’s two mourning coaches; if they need more they have to hire limousines. There’s a platform wagon for hauling wood; they use a horse to draw that. And there’s the coffin brake. That’s the lot. They have four horses, all black. Three are well past their best, but the fourth is a young one.’

‘Have you seen all this?’

‘Yes, sir. Patted the horses.’

‘What’s a coffin brake? That rather sinister affair that looks rather like an ebony cigar box on wheels? I haven’t seen one of those since I was a child.’

‘Haven’t you, sir?’ Picot conveyed that it was the eminent visitor’s loss. ‘People round here like the coffin delivered in one of those. Seems to make it more respectful not to have the hearse call twice. The Bowels have a very good one, old but in fine repair. Nice high box-seat for the driver. It looks very decent coming along.’

‘That’s what he took the grand piano top in, is it?’

‘I imagine so, sir.’ The sergeant blushed unexpectedly. ‘I may have slipped up there. I did not ask.’

Charlie Luke brightened. ‘It’s a small thing, George,’ he said. ‘Don’t take it to heart. Now go away and write it all down. You don’t mind, do you? I hate the ruddy sight of you.’

‘Do you, sir?’ A look of blank amazement passed over the sergeant’s pinkly healthy face. He folded his notebook and advanced gravely to the door. With his hand on the knob he paused and looked back.

‘There is only one other point I feel I should mention,’ he said with dignity. ‘All the time we spent with Mr. Bowels, snr., the old gentleman was sweating like a pig. He was open in his answers and, as I say, we could not find a thing out of place. He was helpful, took us everywhere without a murmur, and he was polite to a fault, but he did sweat.’

‘And what do you deduce from that? That he’d got a cold?’ Charlie Luke was more tired than a man could be.

‘No, sir.’ Picot was reproachful. ‘I gathered that he was frightened stiff. I don’t know why. I shall mention it in my report, of course. Good-night, sir. I hope I’ve been helpful.’

---

The D.D.I. waited until the door had closed. Then he lay back in his chair.

‘It’s common to use bad language,’ he remarked conversationally. ‘The only beauty of that chap Picot is that he’s never wrong. He’s thorough, he doesn’t imagine anything, he doesn’t make allowances, and he thinks that anyone who breaks the law in any way goes first to prison and then to hell. If he says the Bowels end is dead he’s probably right.’ He got up. ‘I think that’s torn it, don’t you?’

Since Campion said nothing but remained perched on the bed, his long arms wrapped round his knees, Luke reached for his hat.

‘I think I go home,’ he said. ‘Miss Ruth has been poisoned, Clytie’s boy-friend has been slugged, Pa Wilde has done himself in, the Captain has put himself out, Jas is innocent but sweating, and we’re just exactly where we always were. Cawdblimiah! We don’t even know who wrote the poison-pen letters.’

‘Oh,’ said Mr Campion, looking up with sudden intelligence, ‘that reminds me, I didn’t give you back that last letter the doctor received. I had a little thought about that.’ He took the wretched sheet from his coat pocket and spread it out on the coverlet beside him. The second passage which had interested him was near the end. He read it aloud.

‘ “Am watching you who are to blame for all trouble and misery god know amen glass tells all don’t forget . . .” ’

His lazy eyes met Luke’s own. ‘I’ve come across that before, once,’ he said. ‘That communicative glass sometimes means a crystal. Got any practising clairvoyants in the district?’

Luke sat down abruptly, his hat hanging from one bony wrist.

‘I was thinking about the Captain and the woman he was waiting for by the pillarbox,’ Campion went on slowly. ‘There may be absolutely nothing at all in this, but that old boy wears a small emerald in a comparatively new ring. It is a peculiar stone for a consciously masculine lad of his period, but Renee tells me his birthday is in May, and my Girl Guide’s diary says that to be lucky those born in May should wear green, preferably emeralds. Suppose he amuses himself with little superstitious fancies? He’s a self-centred man, a poor man, and a man with a lot of time.’ He eyed Luke, who was staring at him. ‘No one gets to hear so much from her clients as a clairvoyant,’ he went on after a while. ‘I may be growing visionary myself, but I can imagine a silly, very slightly sexy association between a chap like that and some crazy half-vicious woman between fifty and sixty whom he visits, and to whom he blabs his own and everybody else’s business. When the balloon went up and the letters were generally discussed, he must have suspected her. There may have been a quarrel. She may have threatened to post one under his own window. I don’t know. When Lawrence tackled him about the letter he certainly lost his head.’

Luke sat perfectly still. He looked as if he were genuinely petrified. When he spoke it was very softly.

‘I ought to resign on this. You might have known her.’

‘Do you?’

‘Slightly.’ He rose, still regarding the other man with a sort of shocked respect. ‘I even knew that he visited her once. One of my chaps mentioned that he’d seen him coming out of her house. That was in the very beginning of the case. I didn’t think another thing about it. It went in one ear and out the other. You’ve got it from cold and I had all the aids and missed it.’

‘Perhaps I’m wrong.’ Mr. Campion seemed taken aback by the violence of his success. ‘It has been known.’

‘Not on your life!’ Charlie Luke had come alive again. In five minutes he had become twice as forceful and ten years younger. ‘That’s the gal all right. Wears red wool knitted jumper suits and calls herself Pharaoh’s Daughter. She gives readings for a tanner a time and we never bothered her under the Act because she seemed so harmless.’

He was concentrating, dragging the picture from the depths of his remarkable memory.

‘Oh, yes!’ he said with tremendous conviction. ‘Yes! That’s her. Lives in a little dark street in a little dark house. Her real name is---let me think---Miss---Miss---God-almighty!’ His eyes widened and he began to stutter. ‘D’you know who she is, Campion? Yes! She’s his sister, dammit! Must be. His sister! And I never thought of it. She’s Miss Congreve, Old Bloblip’s sister at the bank. Oh God! Don’t let me die before I get down there!’

He was so excited that he had not heard the persistent tapping at the door. It was suddenly opened and a delighted, if inopportune, Clytie White appeared on the threshold. Unaware that she had arrived at a moment of crisis, she stood looking in at Luke, half anxious, half ecstatic. She was in all her glory. A skin-tight bodice revealed the charm of her young bosom. A mighty skirt spread out in exaggerated folds to her ankles. A spotted scarf tied in a doubtful bow made her look like a dressed-up kitten, and a modern boater sat squarely and fashionably on her newly dressed hair.

‘Well?’ she demanded, and her voice was breathless.

Charlie Luke paused in his flight to duty. Campion had never respected him more. He stood surveying her earnestly, his eyes narrowed, the whole force of his pile-driver personality concentrated on her problem.

‘I tell you what,’ he said at last. ‘Take off the scarf and wear gloves, and I’ll take you to the pictures Sunday.’

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